A life-changing connection
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Feb 04, 2001
Three years ago, Kyril Calsoyas, the principal of a Navajo elementary boarding
school in Winslow, Ariz., wanted to get Internet access for his school and
five neighboring Navajo Chapter Houses.
With no cable television, no local radio or TV stations, limited cellular
phone services and a depressed economy, getting an Internet hookup in the
region would be no simple task. But what started as a small project for
several little communities spurred the entire Navajo Nation to enter the
Through a U.S. Department of Commerce grant and donations from the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation, 170,000 Navajo citizens — scattered across
26,000 square miles in three states — gained access to computers and the
World Wide Web last fall.
"A year ago, we were sitting here thinking that technology is not going
to arrive 20 years hence," said Benjamin Jones, director of the Navajo
division of community development, which oversees computer use and provides
training for the Navajos.
Jones and other Navajo government officials said technology could help
their citizens develop skills, facilitate better communications between
communities and spur the economy.
The introduction of computers and the Internet is significant because
they could provide economic development for the Navajos, government officials
said. The per capita income is slightly more than $4,000, and nearly 60
percent of all Navajo families live below the poverty level, according to
the grant proposal. Of the 92,000 people 16 years old and older, about
28 percent are unemployed and 75 percent use Navajo as their "primary
means of communication."
Half of all houses lack complete plumbing and kitchen facilities, and
nearly 80 percent lack telephones, according to community leaders. "Since
only a handful [less than 1 percent] of the few families that have electricity
and a phone actually have had the financial resources to purchase their
own computer, this project will play an integral role in closing the disparity
gap," Navajo government officials wrote in their proposal.
In 1997, Calsoyas, who was unavailable for an interview, contacted several
individuals to be advisers and help connect the Seba Dalkai Boarding School
and the five surrounding Chapter Houses. Chapter Houses are local governance
units that handle voting, administrative matters and the dissemination of
health information. They serve anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand
people in their area.
Ed Groenhout, vice president for strategic initiatives at Northern Arizona
University (NAU), was one such adviser. Since local phone service was unreliable,
he said they looked into satellite service.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that administers programs
to federally recognized Indian tribes, considered connecting all BIA schools
with two-way satellite service. But Calsoyas, tired of pressing BIA on
that initiative, decided to pursue his project, called the Navajo Nation
Virtual Alliance, through a local nonprofit agency, Developing Innovations
in Navajo Education.
Calsoyas applied to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications
and Information Administration and received a $475,000 grant in fall 1999
to connect the five Chapter Houses and boarding school through a very small
aperture terminal satellite system.
The idea was to install interactive, touch-screen kiosks at the Chapter
Houses in both English and Navajo to provide governmental and other information.
But the cost was prohibitive — about $18,000 to install the equipment plus
$780 a month for only six hours of Internet access a day.
"When I saw that information, I called the guy working for Kyril [Calsoyas]
and said, "You can't do that,'" Groenhout said.
On that same day, Groenhout flipped through a satellite industry report,
Skyreport.com. It had a story about Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd. starting
a joint venture with EchoStar Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. The
new venture, called Gilat-To-Home Inc., would be the "first consumer, always-on,
two-way, high-speed satellite Internet service provider." He contacted
a friend at EchoStar who put him in touch with Nick Putz, Gilat's director
for strategic business relationships.
After providing Putz with background material and history, Groenhout
arranged for him to fly to Arizona to meet with tribal government officials
and Calsoyas. Groenhout said there was a "synergism" between Putz and Calsoyas.
Because the Gilat technology was new, Putz offered it at a greatly
reduced price. "Kyril said, "I can do every Chapter House for that amount
of money and pay three years of their bills,'" Groenhout recalled.
Soon after, the NTIA grant was amended to include the Navajo Nation's
110 Chapter Houses. Gilat — which has since changed its name to StarBand
Communications Inc., based in McLean, Va. — signed on. In a parallel project,
the NAU Foundation helped underwrite the computers and satellite installation
for 500 members of the Havasupai Tribe who live at the bottom of the Grand
Canyon, and the First Mesa Hopi Police Department.
StarBand donated the equipment and significantly subsidized installation
costs and Internet service. As a result, each Chapter House, outfitted
with a computer and state-of-the-art wireless system, gets free Internet
service for the next three years. Satellite Internet speed is equivalent
to cable modem data transfer rates.
Through a separate project, the Gates Foundation is donating and installing
two to four computers per Chapter House and is linking them to the satellite
Internet system. That proj-ect will be completed by June 2001. The foundation
is providing up to five days' worth of training to the entire community
and offering technical support through interns recruited from local community
The community development division, headed by Benjamin Jones and part
of the Navajo nation's executive branch, is responsible for issues such
as infrastructure, roads, transportation, solid waste management, housing
services and Chapter House projects and communications. His division is
also concerned with securing financial independence, promoting respectful
mutual partnerships, government reform, technology and preservation of culture
Jones said the StarBand computers can be used by anyone and for administrative
matters, but the Gates Foundation machines are restricted to exclusive
use by community members. His division is coordinating orientation sessions
with residents at Chapter Houses. For now, residents are being taught basic
computer skills, such as Web browsing and using e-mail.
"The level of skill out there in the chapter is pretty low compared
with the national average because we haven't had access to this technology,"
said Norbert Nez, systems analyst.
Appeal varies, Nez added. He said Chapter Houses with a large percentage
of young people encounter more people with interest and eagerness to learn.
But more remote Chapter Houses with limited resources, such as phone lines,
are slower to pick it up, he said.
"The majority of them are really looking forward to the technology,"
For a culture used to processing information manually, or driving,
mailing or phoning the Navajo central government in Window Rock, the technology
offers some great benefits, namely better communication and dissemination
of information. Jones said people might drive for hours to take care of
business at Window Rock.
"If you don't get it done, you may want to come back the next day or
the next day," he said. "Physically, you jump in the car for three to four
hours not knowing whether you'll get the answers or not."
The Local Governance Act of 1998 empowered Chapter Houses to make more
locally based decisions and to facilitate more day-to-day administrative
functions that the central government had been doing. Jones said the technology
would eventually enable them to manage administrative functions and share
data more efficiently.
One aim is to create a database of financial and project information
made available via the Web. He said geographic information systems could
be integrated to provide census information from each Chapter House to Jones'
department and straight to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Videoconferencing is an appealing future possibility, said officials,
because of the large distances between Chapter Houses. Accessing educational
programs via the Web is another hope. But Jones said the Navajos would need
to develop partnerships with higher education institutions and other organizations
to fully use the technology.