A life-changing connection

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

Digital Age.

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

colleges.

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

and language.

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,"

Nez said.

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.

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