TOPAZ could dazzle rural Arizona

Arizona has embarked on an ambitious multimillion-dollar initiative to provide 87 communities in mostly rural areas with a public, high-speed telecommunications network.

State officials hope that increasing bandwidth in those areas could spur economic development in addition to providing services such as telemedicine and distance learning.

The project, called the Telecommunications Open Partnerships for Arizona (TOPAZ) could affect as many as 750,000 residents.

The state recently signed Qwest Communications International Inc. to a seven-year, $8 million deal to connect 35 communities. It plans to solidify agreements with eight other telecommunications providers: AT&T, Citizens Communications, Cox Communications Inc., Global Crossing Ltd., GTech Corp., WorldCom, Sprint and Winstar Communications Inc.

"Broadband's the key. We just need more and more and more," said Art Ranney, the state's chief information officer. Many areas have just point-to-point communications lines without the capability to carry high-speed data, voice and video transmission, he said.

About a year ago, Ranney said Arizona officials decided they would take things into their own hands when it became evident that telecom providers would not improve the infrastructure in smaller cities. The city of Douglas, for example, lost an opportunity to attract a new business.

With about $100 million available over five years, the state issued a request for proposals and announced the deal with Qwest just before Christmas. "We're leveraging our buying power," said Paul Wix, an oversight manager with the state's Government Information Technology Agency (GITA).

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