Robust, Resilient, Broadband Infrastructure for Arizona

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Digital Beat

Robust, Resilient, Broadband Infrastructure for Arizona

"Too many of our rural communities are being left behind because they don’t have the infrastructure they need like high-speed internet."

—Gov. Katie Hobbs (D-AZ) 2023 State of the State Address

Educational excellence. A 21st century economy. Protecting communities. Fiscal responsibility. Happy and healthy citizens. These were the top five priorities of former-Governor Doug Ducey (R-AZ) in early 2018 when the Arizona Department of Administration released the Arizona Statewide Broadband Strategic Plan:

  1. Broadband in every community helps ensure that children and teachers get the resources they need to succeed and helps level the playing field. Arizona’s educational communities with little or no access to the internet will be left behind as educational communities in other states excel. Access to broadband ensures that students and citizens have the greatest opportunity to improve their educational results, career transitions, and professional development, leading them to reach their fullest potential.
  2. One cannot advance and support the way Arizona must do business today without access to reliable broadband. The speed of business today requires access to broadband services, which are the foundation of a 21st century economy and E-government. One cannot grow or strengthen the state’s economy—or recruit out-of-state companies to expand their operations throughout Arizona—if businesses lack reliable access to broadband.
  3. If a government’s number-one responsibility is keeping its citizens and homeland safe, broadband access is the foundation. Without access to reliable broadband services, law enforcement will lose out on life-saving and transformative technology like body-worn cameras, gunshot monitoring, and license plate-reading technology. As technologies that protect the public evolve, so must the networks that support them. Broadband is critical as law enforcement agencies increasingly incorporate equipment and tools that are connected to the internet.
  4. Broadband is the backbone that connects communities —whether it is to organize a neighborhood clean-up or to provide telehealth services to communities that are geographically separated from healthcare providers. Citizens need broadband and mobile services everywhere they live and travel to keep them connected to nearly all facets of their life. In a time when vehicles, appliances, phones, medical instruments, and satellites are linking up on digital networks that did not exist five years ago, the average American relies on broadband connectivity to feel happy and healthy.
  5. For government to reduce the cost of doing business, automate and offer services on-line, and be more efficient in the delivery of services to its citizens, access to reliable and affordable broadband will be required to facilitate these initiatives. Rural and underserved communities will substantially benefit from these on-line services. The challenges of distance and limited access to brick and mortar government facilities is a road block for citizens to access government services.

But those priorities would go unrealized, the plan warned, without equal, affordable, and reliable broadband access with robust, resilient infrastructure for all citizens. Over the last 20 years, the Arizona state government and several entities in Arizona have worked hard on expanding affordable high-speed broadband access for its citizens. Although there has been progress, too many people in the state still lack access.

The Digital Divide in Arizona

“We need to make sure all Arizona kids are prepared for the 21st century. Many Arizona public schools are leading the nation when it comes to science and technology. But too many students, specifically in our rural areas, and in our tribal nations are missing out. It’s 2017, but outside of our urban areas, broadband is still spotty. Let’s fix this, by connecting to high-speed internet. Let’s break the firewall and get connected.” —Governor Doug Ducey (R-AZ) in 2017

Arizona's 2018 broadband plan drew from a number of datasets to understand the state's digital divide. 

At the time, Broadbandnow ranked Arizona the 29th “most connected state” in the country, with 87 percent of the population having access to at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed. The average broadband speed statewide was 26.2 Mbps, up from 19.7 Mbps in 2012. Broadbandnow now ranks Arizona 37th and just over 90 percent of Arizonans have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband speeds. 2015 Census Bureau American Community Survey data indicated that 78 percent of Arizonans had internet service in the home.

According to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2016 Broadband Report, 13 percent (898,724) of the Arizona population still didn't have broadband access. And 20 percent of the population was still underserved, meaning they had no more than two broadband service providers, and received access speeds so slow that they couldn't utilize the internet to take advantage of online opportunities that require highspeed connectivity. Only 11.4 percent of Arizonans had access to 1-gigabit broadband connections. Only 9.7 percent of Arizonans had access to fiber-optic service. 912,000 Arizonans had access to only one wireline internet provider. Another 429,000 people in Arizona didn't have any wireline internet service providers available. 

The FCC's 2018 Broadband Deployment Report found that only 34 percent of rural areas in Arizona and 8.2 percent of the tribal population had access to 25/3 Mbps broadband speeds. 

In Arizona, 162,382 people living on tribal lands (95 percent) were either unserved or underserved by telecommunication infrastructure. They often had to resort to local community anchor institutions for their only connection to the rest of the digital world.

The  Arizona Department of Administration found that, in many rural areas, broadband service was not only unreliable, it also was unaffordable. There was a distinct lack of redundancy, putting residents and visitors in serious danger when outages occurred because critical services became inaccessible.

Arizona's Push Towards Universal Broadband

Over the last decade, Arizona's efforts to expand the reach of broadband have seen mixed results.

A draft Statewide Strategic Plan for Digital Arizona was completed in 2012 but never adopted. The plan included strategic goals and recommendations that would leverage broadband connectivity to transform education, healthcare and research, improve public safety and government operations, and create new opportunities for business and enable long-term sustainable economic development. The plan also included draft strategies for reducing barriers to broadband development, incentivizing or otherwise encouraging vendor investment in infrastructure, and fostering public-private partnerships to resolve capacity issues in rural areas.

In 2012, the Digital Arizona Highways Act was signed into law. The legislation was designed to incentivize private-sector investment making it easier to deploy middle-mile fiber-optic infrastructure alongside Arizona’s highways in rural communities. While the law still stands, it appears to have had little to no impact on expanding broadband, largely because the 2012 plan failed to move forward.

In 2017, Gov. Ducey signed legislation making Arizona the first state in the nation to streamline local and state regulations related to wireless infrastructure enabling the deployment of next-generation 5G wireless communications. In Spring 2019, Verizon picked Phoenix to be among the first U.S. markets to be part of the company’s 5G Ultra Wideband network.

In 2017 the Arizona Corporation Commission updated Arizona Universal Service Fund (AUSF) rules to provide funding for “Special Construction” projects in Arizona. Used in combination with the E-rate program, this funding would result in approximately $150 million in new construction projects within the state.

Arizona's 2018 broadband plan included six goals for the state:

  1. Broadband is accessible and affordable: Develop minimum service standards, cost targets for residential and commercial service, expand free public access, and develop a business case for providers to invest in infrastructure, increasing competition and affordability.
  2. Broadband expansion is strategically governed and implemented: Establishing a state broadband office and advisory board.
  3. Existing broadband infrastructure is identified, leveraged, and expanded: Create a statewide broadband infrastructure plan.
  4. Broadband funding opportunities are identified, leveraged, and expanded.
  5. Citizens understand the impact of broadband and promote adoption: Create and implement an education, outreach, and public involvement plan around Arizona broadband initiatives.
  6. Policies are implemented to incentivize the provision of/reduce barriers to broadband: Examine alternative deployment and ownership models.

In Arizona’s fiscal year 2019 budget, the state dedicated a total of $11 million to leverage a combined $110 million in federal E-Rate funding to connect the state's rural schools and libraries.

As part of Arizona’s fiscal year 2020 budget, Arizona allocated $3 million in taxpayer funding to act as grant match dollars to leverage additional federal resources to accelerate broadband deployment in underserved areas.  

In February 2022, the Arizona Commerce Authority, in partnership with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), announced the Arizona Statewide Broadband Middle-Mile Strategic Plan, which supports current broadband expansion efforts on Interstate 17 and Interstate 19. The plan has led to the creation of the Statewide Middle-Mile Network, which aims to increase broadband service along I-17 and I-19 and future expansion along additional interstate and state highways. Designated corridors for fiber optic conduit installation for the Middle-Mile Network include 141 miles for I-17 between Flagstaff and Phoenix and 60 miles for I-19 between Tucson and Nogales. Both routes combined will add 200 miles of fiber optic broadband conduit.

In July 2022, the Arizona Commerce Authority approved 20 awardees from the Arizona Broadband Development Grant Program (ABDG). The grant allocated a total of $75.7 million to 14 awardees in rural counties and $23.6 million to six awardees in urban counties, spurring $112.8 million in local matching funds.

In January 2023, newly-elected Governor Katie Hobbs (D-AZ) laid out her executive budget priorities which include broadband infrastructure. She asked the state legislature for:

  • a $50 million one-time deposit into the newly established Rural Broadband Accelerated Match Fund,

  • $16 million in one-time funding to enhance broadband infrastructure at State facilities in rural Arizona, and

  • $5 million to support the development of fast and reliable broadband service in schools.

Earlier this month, Gov. Hobbs vetoed the legislature's budget because it did not address her priorities. 

Federal Funding

In the past two years, Arizona has received a number of federal broadband grants. 

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program provides support for the purchase of broadband internet access service and eligible equipment or to hire and train information technology personnel:

  • The University of Arizona received a $3 million grant to connect distance-learning students and underserved communities across Southern Arizona with enhanced broadband access and technology, as well as educational and workforce development programs. The project will address the dire need for broadband internet access, connectivity and digital inclusion in highly diverse, often rural, communities in Southern Arizona. The project's two primary goals are to support University of Arizona students in need and to provide digital literacy and workforce development through community organizations.
  • Dine College’s CONNECT NAVAJO project aims to improve educational and economic opportunity in the Navajo Nation by improving internet access, providing more hardware, and investing in IT staff. This $2.9 million project will ensure that the Diné people can continue to reside in their homes in Navajo Nation and benefit from access to technology that helps them earn academic credentials and enter economically rewarding and personally fulfilling careers.
  • The Tohono O'odham Community College Hewel Wepegi Macidag kc, wog - ‘Learning the Internet Road’ is designed to directly address the lack of broadband access, connectivity, adoption and equity at the college and in the surrounding anchor communities on Tohono O’odham Nation (TON). The overarching goal of this $1.9 million program is to support economic development in the Tohono O'odham Nation through digital workforce development, community connectivity improvement, and computer literacy enhancement.

NTIA's Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program provides funding for tribal governments to use for broadband deployment on tribal lands, as well as for telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability, and digital inclusion. Tribes in Arizona have won a number of awards from this program including:

  • The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority in Fort Defence was awarded over $50 million to install fiber, fixed wireless, and 2.5 GHz wireless networks to directly connect 20,827 unserved and underserved Native American households with fiber-to-the-home and/or fixed wireless to the home service up to 1 Gbps/1 Gbps.
  • The Dilkon Chapter of Winslow was awarded over $33 million to install fiber directly connecting 3,643 unserved Native American households, plus anchor institutions and businesses, with a minimum of 25/3 Mbps wireless service. 
  • The White Mountain Apache Tribe in Whiteriver was awarded over $24 million to install fiber directly connecting 3,671 unserved Native American households and 56 unserved Tribal business and community anchor institutions with fiber-to-the-home 1 Gbps/1 Gbps service.
  • Hopi Telecommunications in Flagstaff was awarded nearly $14 million to install fiber directly connecting 1,076 unserved Native American households, plus 18 businesses and 6 community anchor institutions, with fiber-to-the-home with up to 1 Gbps/1 Gbps service.

In December 2022, Arizona received Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program and the Digital Equity Act program grants to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed internet service throughout the state. Arizona received $5 million for:

  • Identification of unserved and underserved locations;
  • Planning and capacity-building of Arizona’s broadband office;
  • Expanding the state's digital infrastructure statewide to improve the economy and quality of life for all Arizonans;
  • Identification and prioritization of short-term and long-term broadband projects;
  • Engagement of partners and local stakeholders to align on a common, shared goal of providing affordable, reliable, and high-speed Internet service for all Arizonans.

Arizona received an additional $1.1 million for creation of a State Digital Equity Plan, engagement with community stakeholders, and data collection to understand barriers to high-speed internet service adoption.

On February 22, 2023, the U.S. Department of the Treasury approved Arizona's plan to use $99.4 million—just over half of the state's Capital Projects Fund allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act—for broadband infrastructure. Arizona will implement two broadband infrastructure programs that aim to provide reliable internet access to areas of the state lacking adequate service.

  • The Arizona Broadband Development Rural Infrastructure Grant program (ABDG-Rural) is a competitive grant program designed to expand high-speed broadband in the state’s thirteen rural counties.
  • The Arizona Broadband Development Urban Infrastructure Grant program (ABDG-Urban) is a competitive grant program designed to improve and expand broadband infrastructure in the state’s two urban counties.

All networks supported by the Capital Projects Fund allocation will be designed to provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses upon project completion. And providers will participate in the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program so eligible low-income households will see a $30 reduction in their monthly internet bill ($75/month for low-income households on Tribal Lands). 

Arizona submitted plans for the remainder of its Capital Project Funds and these applications are currently under review by Treasury.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
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