By Holly Watt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008
A large swath of the sprawling Navajo Nation could lose access to the Internet today, in a dispute that threatens services from personal e-mail to police radio communications on the 27,000-square-mile reservation.
The Navajos' problem stems from a funding battle over whether an arm of the Federal Communications Commission will continue to pay grant money to the tribe's Internet provider.
"The situation has become critical and threatens the safety and security of the Nation and its residents," New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D) and Pete V. Domenici (R) wrote to the FCC two weeks ago. "We are deeply disturbed by this imminent loss of communications service to vital public safety agencies."
In a letter to the nonprofit agency that administers the grant, Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, wrote that "in just a few days, the Navajo Nation will lose its entire communications network, including its public safety network, as a byproduct of USAC's mishandling of this matter," referring to the agency, Universal Service Administrative Co.
Hundreds of Navajo students will be unable to finish online courses, he said, and "sadly, mothers are also no longer able to reach out and communicate with their children at war in Iraq."
The tribe of about 250,000 people already has lost Internet service to libraries and community centers known as "chapter houses," and has little access to cellphone service on a reservation that stretches across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Most Internet access there is provided via satellite, which is due to be shut off. Much of the Navajo Nation is inaccessible to land lines.
USAC, which administers billions of dollars in FCC grants every year to provide Internet service to rural areas and low-income consumers, is refusing to continue funding after an audit by the tribal government revealed questions over payments by the Navajos to their Internet provider, OnSat. As a result, another company, SES Americom, which provides satellite services to OnSat, is scheduled to pull the plug today.
USAC says the provider is under investigation, after the audit raised questions about the bidding process and possible overpayment. But the provider rejects the findings and plans to fight them in tribal court.
The Navajo Nation Department of Justice has launched an inquiry and barred employees from talking about the issue for 60 days.
Jim Fitting, an Albuquerque lawyer who represents OnSat, said the company could no longer subsidize the satellite services without funding from USAC. A spokesman for SES Americom said that its contract with OnSat had run out and that it already had granted the company several extensions.
Eric Iversen, a spokesman for USAC, said that "an internal Navajo Nation audit conducted during the summer of 2007 found problems with the contract between Navajo Nation and OnSat and the bidding process that led to it."
Losing Internet access would be a critical communications setback for the Navajo, said Catherine Banker, president of the E-Rate Service Providers Association, a trade association for companies that provide services to schools and libraries through USAC funding.
"The Navajo Nation is a place where you often can only get satellite connections, and that is very expensive," she said. Of the $2.25 billion USAC spends each year, "very little of that has been proven to be wasted. It is a very complicated system, so lots of schools are just unable to do the applications correctly."
She added that many schools now use satellite Internet connections for telephone communications. "Public safety could be threatened, because schools use VOIP," or voice-over-Internet protocol. "If you have a life-threatening situation with a student, you might not be able to call 911."
George Hardeen, a spokesman for the Navajo Nation's president's office, said this week that police emergency services would not be compromised despite the cutoff, but declined to comment further.
During the first phase of shut-off in April, Internet access for libraries and chapter houses was disconnected.
Victoria Bydone, the community services coordinator at the Inscription House Chapter at Tonalea, Ariz., said that many local residents had been upset over losing Internet access.
"For people who don't have a phone line or wireless, which is a large number of people around here, the nearest place to access the Internet is probably Page, Ariz., which is about 60 miles away," Bydone said. "I think with the price of gas going up, more people have been asking about the Internet." Before Internet service was introduced, she said, "they didn't notice not having it, but then they relied on it."
Eliza Yazzie, a 24-year-old college student, said many of her fellow students had used the Internet for online classes. "It became a real issue when it got switched off. People were really upset. There isn't really anywhere else around here for a lot of people to get online."
The project was originally funded with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. By 2003, the foundation's annual report announced that "all 110 chapter houses in the Navajo Nation offer free access to computers and the Internet." Some chapter houses also were fitted with solar panels to provide electricity for the computers.