Going the distance: Gila County brings high-speed internet to schools and libraries

Photo Courtesy Tonto Basin Public Library

Contributed Article By Carol Broeder

GILA COUNTY – For four years now, the Gila County School Superintendent’s Office and Library District have collaborated on a project that will ultimately benefit high-speed internet access to every community.

School Superintendent Roy Sandoval describes the $19 million project bringing high-speed internet cabling to every school and library in Gila County.

It’s an endeavor that faced numerous obstacles and delays—including COVID. However, with much assistance and dogged determination, they are in the final stages of the very last library and school district.

“A very significant accomplishment” is how Sandoval describes the culmination of this high-speed cabling project.

“Not only does it provide high-speed internet cabling to all the schools and libraries in Gila County, but it also provides internet access at a significant discount called ‘E-rate’,” he explains.

Sandoval credits those he calls “the real heroes” of the story. “We would not be talking about this achievement without the expertise, support, and dogged determination of State E-rate Director Milan Eaton; Deputy County Director/County Librarian Jacque Sanders (now retired) and E-rate Consultant/Yavapai County E-rate Director Frank Vander Horst,” he says.

Looking back, Sandoval chronicles the path he describes as “long and convoluted.”

Many were the obstacles in bringing the project to fruition, not the least of which was working with the entity that oversees the federal E-rate program.

Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) presented “what can only be described as a labyrinth of requirements—do’s; don’ts and an entirely new vocabulary of words and acronyms,” Sandoval explains.

In late October 2017, Eaton paid a visit to the Superintendent’s Office at the Gila County Courthouse “to inform us of the opportunity,” Sandoval says.

It was then they learned that to apply, the schools and libraries in Gila County would have to form a consortium.

‘It was too late in the fiscal year to form and apply as a consortium, so we asked Navajo County if we could join and be part of their consortium already in progress,” says Sandoval adding, “They graciously accepted us.”

By May 2018, the Requests for Proposal (RFP) were in, but the consortium ran into problems with responders questioning the process used to choose the provider, he explains.

By June, it looked as though a legal battle would put the whole Navajo Consortium process in jeopardy.

Sandoval met with Sanders, his partner in the endeavor, about the possibility of forming their own Gila County Consortium and applying in the next fiscal year.  They agreed to stay with the Navajo Consortium two more months.

In the meantime, Sandoval contacted Eaton and Vander Horst to investigate the possibilities and enlist their help should they strike out on their own.

“By September that year, it was clear we needed to move forward as our own Gila County Consortium,” he says.

Sandoval and Sanders were able to engineer the consortium and, with help from an initial consultant, navigated the RFP process for consideration.

“It seems almost silly that I can communicate in one sentence a five-month, high-stakes process worth $19 million dollars that was relatively unforgiving of mistakes and missteps,” says Sandoval, adding “In any event, we were successful to that point.”

By June 2019, their proposal was accepted. After choosing Sparklight, they were ready to begin the construction phase. At that time, they changed consultants, bringing in Vander Horst. “It was a wise move,” Sandoval explains. “His experience and expertise have been invaluable.”

“It is difficult for the average individual to comprehend the wagonload of studies, permits, and permissions it takes to place cabling across roadbeds, forest service, reservation, spotted owl breeding grounds, etc. ad infinitum,” Sandoval says. “It is a long, slow, stop-and-go process.”

Photo Courtesy Roy Sandoval: Roy Sandoval

To top it all off, USAC required that all work be completed in one year—by June 2020.

“We all know what happened in 2020. You guessed it—COVID!” says Sandoval, adding that while it did disrupt the process, there was a silver lining.  “Because of COVID, USAC provided a one-year extension on all federal projects. Long story short, our project slogged on at a snail’s pace due to multiple studies and permit requirements of sometimes competing federal and state entities.”

By late fiscal year 2021, it was clear the project was not even close to completion, but Vander Horst was able to engineer a final extension until June 2023.

“By November 2022, we were assured that all the schools and libraries would be online by January 1 (2023)—a great Christmas gift!” Sandoval says. “Alas, it was not to be. Heavy snow and more permit delays continued to dog the process.”

At that point, it was Eaton who “really saved the day,” with weekly progress meetings and “a very assertive stance providing assistance and accountability,” says Sandoval, adding, “I believe, without his stubborn insistence and accountability, we would not be where we are today.”

And where is the project today? “It looks like Hayden/Winkelman–the final school and library–will be online by June 1,” he says.

Though “tangled and protracted,” the process was well worth it to Gila County students and citizens, Sandoval says. “We know that, though the cabling and ‘trunk’ brought in by our project is specifically for schools and libraries, the cabling access will ultimately benefit high-speed internet access for each community,” Sandoval says. “It has been a pleasure to serve with a team of excellent colleagues and to serve the people of Gila County.”