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Navajo Nation bridging broadband divide with LTE

Seeking stimulus funds to bring fiber to 27,000-square mile Navajo reservation in Arizona, tribal utility plans to use 4G for last-mile broadband access

Last Friday, one of the first live long-term evolution sites went live in the US, but it wasn’t in New York, San Francisco or any of the other major markets of the country. Nor was the cell site deployed by Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD), AT&T (NYSE:T), MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) or any of the other major wireless operators. Instead the ZTE base station was switched on in Fort Defiance, Arizona, in the heart of the sprawling Navajo reservation.

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The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has partnered with Commnet Wireless to address one of the starkest examples of the digital divide in the US: the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation left largely behind by the digital and broadband revolution. Building a wireline broadband network to cover 400,000 people in what is an almost entirely rural reservation the size of West Virginia would be impossible. So NTUA and Commnet have decided to tackle the problem with wireless.

“The Navajo Nation has traditionally suffered from a lack of connectivity,” said Monroe Keedo, IT manager for NTUA. “The Navajo Nation will benefit from this project in four big ways: economic development, education, public safety and health care.”

On the economic development front, government offices would suddenly find themselves interconnected as well as linked to agencies outside of the reservation. The tourism industry—one of the major economic drivers on the reservation—would see the world of e-commerce open up. In education, children who spend four hours a day on a bus going to school could use a mobile broadband network to get their homework done and then have access to school and other digital education resources when they got home.

Eventually, schools could explore distance learning technologies to obviate the need to travel so far to a physical school, Keedo said.

The LTE network would provide the first remote communications link to police and other public safety agencies in many parts of the reservation. But one of the biggest immediate advantages the broadband wireless network would provide would be in the area of health care, Keedo said. The Navajo Nation is far too dispersed to support major hospitals or other health-care infrastructure. “We don’t have the professionals who are experts to solve the health problems on the reservation,” Keedo said. If any region of the country could benefit from the emerging e-health technologies, it’s the Navajo Nation, Keedo said. MRIs and X-Rays could be imaged locally and sent over the network to Albuquerque or Phoenix—or anywhere in the world—for analysis and diagnosis. Doctors wouldn’t have to be in close proximity to their patients.

NTUA isn’t the first to try to bridge the broadband divide in Navajo lands with 4G technologies. Across the border in New Mexico, Sacred Wind Communications is attempting to do the same in its portion of the Navajo Nation, using WiMax technology from Fujitsu-Airspan and unlicensed 3.65 GHz frequencies. But NTUA isn’t looking for a customized solution in Arizona. Rather it’s emulating mobile operators, using the exact same technology, LTE, and the exact same spectrum, 700 MHz, as VZW, AT&T and MetroPCS. It hopes to build a network that can not only integrate seamlessly with the 4G networks in the outside world, but can take advantage of the sizable economies of scale of the North American LTE ecosystem.

The initial focus of the network will be residential access, supplying broadband—in many cases for the first time—to tens of thousands of homes, businesses and community buildings. To do so the NTUA will need to create an intricate footprint of 59 cellsites positioned to capture as many Navajo residences as possible. The network won’t have blanket coverage by any means—there will be huge swathes of the reservation that no LTE signal will reach, but through careful planning and by taking advantage of 700 MHz high propagation characteristics and signal-boost customer premise equipment, NTUA and Commnet hope to capture 70% to 80% of the reservation homes in its footprint, some of which may be as far as 15 miles from the tower, said Peter Cappiello, vice president of business development for Future Technologies, a systems integrator working with Commnet and NTUA on the project. In more populated areas like Fort Defiance there will multiple cells, supporting handoff and eventual mobility. In other areas, there will be lone transmitting towers, linked back through long-distance microwave radios supplied by DragonWave (NASDAQ:DRWI).

But first, NTUA needs a fiber backbone.

Commnet has all of the elements of the radio access network and core running in Fort Defiance: a ZTE base station co-located to a ZTE evolved packet core (EPC). DragonWave will soon install its Quantum Horizon radios linking the core to the first of the 28 other towers NTUA and Commnet have built as well as providing direct connections to government buildings and community centers. But at the other side of the core, the network isn’t connected to anything. Fort Defiance and most other areas of the reservation are hundreds of miles away from Albuquerque and Farmington, NM, the nearest points of presence with the fiber interconnections necessary to link the Navajo LTE network to the rest of the world.

NTUA is applying for a $46 million broadband stimulus grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to fund a 530-mile fiber route that would bisect the reservation and provide a means of transporting those volumes of 4G traffic to the outside world. The grant would cover site acquisition, tower construction, backhaul radios and a data center along with the backbone, but without the fiber those efforts would be moot. Commnet is investing $1.25 million in LTE infrastructure and its 700 MHz license, but the whole project is still classified as a trial while NTUA waits to hear if NTIA grant committee approves its application. “We’re hopeful the committee sees the merits of what we’re doing,” Cappiello said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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