Flagstaff, Arizona: Low population density means phone and internet companies don’t upgrade services – but in the Navajo Nation vital infrastructure was never installed.
It’s been two years since Sonia’s husband’s fatal heart attack. Almost anywhere else in the United States, emergency services could have helped her. But in an isolated corner of the 27,000 square miles that constitute the Navajo Nation, she, her daughter and one of her granddaughters had to manage without technology most of the rest of America takes for granted.
The family were outside Tolani Lake, in part of the vast Navajo Nation’s land in north-east Arizona. “My husband had roped a bull that we were dealing with,” Sonia said. “He said he needed to catch his breath. I told him to sit down and he did.” He started to feel better, got back to work and then faltered again.
“We were taking him over to the truck,” Sonia recalls, “but he knelt down.” Sonia’s daughter called 911.
Across the vast majority of the United States – almost 99% of the country – 911 callers can be traced directly to their cellphone’s latitude and longitude, enough information to send help by air. But not here.
Sonia, who asked that the Guardian not use her full name or the names of her family, tried to describe their surroundings, but the dispatcher in Leupp, Arizona, 20 miles away, was unfamiliar with the area. And there was no information from their phones.
The dispatcher asked the family to come to the nearest road.
Three generations of Sonia’s family carried the older man between them across the patch of desert between the livestock and the truck. They put him in the back and drove. A fire truck met them at the top of a hill closer to the main road. Eventually an ambulance arrived and drove to Leupp across dry miles of unpaved road, where cars fishtail and spin out if they try to hurry.
In Leupp, the vital helicopter was waiting, but by then it was too late.
Sonia said she’s made her peace with it. “He probably didn’t want to live after that. He doesn’t want to be at home not doing anything,” she said, her voice breaking. “He likes to be out there and he’d have to put up with that. So it’s OK with me. Even if we’d got him going again, he wouldn’t have wanted to be there.”
‘After a while, people just stop calling’ In many rural communities in the US, the low population density means that phone and internet companies simply don’t upgrade their equipment often enough to keep pace with progress. In Navajo, much of the vital infrastructure was never installed to begin with.
The thin unshielded silver wires strung between the telephone poles that run alongside the highway connect places like To’hajilee, a reservation of about 4,000 people to the outside world. In large parts cellphone coverage is spotty – at best. There is no broadband. In February, a break in the community’s sole line meant that none of the ATMs or credit card scanners in town worked.
Navajo is the largest recipient of funds from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs – it’s the most populous tribe in the country – but the figures themselves can be insultingly low. A 2014 grant to Navajo’s state-owned internet provider, which aspires to serve the community of 300,000 across an area larger than West Virginia, totaled some $32m. AT&T of Tennessee received $156m in federal money to provide broadband access to 81,000 homes in rural Tennessee the following year.
Adam Geisler, 31, is not Navajo; but is on a mission to improve the ability of police officers, ambulance drivers, and the fire department to identify and respond to disasters. He works with FirstNet, an authority set up by the US Department of Commerce to spend $7bn in federal funds setting up a data network for first responders across the US.
FirstNet owns an incredibly valuable piece of unreal estate: a chunk of radio-wave spectrum big enough to make its owner the fourth-largest network in the country. It’s FirstNet’s job to pay someone to take it.
There is friction within Navajo, too. Benson Willie, of Tolani Lake, calls the area around Window Rock “the golden circle”. “All they have to do is put up their hands,” he groused to Phelps. Years before, Willie lost his mother to a car accident; his frantic 911 call was rerouted three times and it took an ambulance ninety minutes to reach him. He could have gone to Leupp, had a hamburger and come back in the time it took the medics, he said.
“His anger represents a whole group of anger out here. Which is good,” Phelps said later. “Energy is good.” The alternative is despair.
Read Article (Sam Thielman | theguardian.com | 05/16/2016)
There is no quick fix for extending Internet into many rural areas in America. But it must be accomplished somehow. I was under the impression the Internet by satellite would be the answer but that has yet to happen.
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