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Bringing technology to the Navajo Nation

John Badal saw a need and has spent the past 16 years filling it. Badal is the founder and president of Sacred Wind Communications, a local telephone company and broadband provider for the Navajo Nation.

He was in the telephone business for 30 years, first Mountain Bell in Albuquerque, and later AT&T. He retired from AT&T in 1998 and started a consultancy. In 2000 he was invited to run Qwest for the state of New Mexico. He was the state president for the company for four years.

In 2004 Badal’s attention turned to the Navajo Nation and other Tribal peoples. Though he is not Native American himself, he was moved by the high poverty of one of the largest tribes in the country, the Navajo. He felt it was an entity that could never achieve equality of educational, economic or health care opportunity with urban areas in its current state.

He saw broadband as somewhat of an equalizer, particularly to the elderly and to children, giving more direct access to information systems and other services.

“I was an advocate of tribal ownership of their own telecom systems and as a matter of their economic and cultural survival,” he said. “When I couldn’t find a company that was willing to focus on the needs of the Navajo people, I decided to do this myself.

“I started with the business plan in 2004. We opened in Dec. 2006,” he said.

Sacred Wind, which employs a significant number of Navajo people in its ranks, says it is currently providing the highest speed broadband service to homes, of any company operating on Navajo lands.

Badal said his company has telephone dial-up service and hi-speed Wi-Fi with a mix of fiber, broadband and fixed wireless, which allows people to put an antenna on their home and attach it to a modem inside.

Badal said Sacred Wind acquired all of Qwest/Century Link’s telephone assets on Navajo lands in New Mexico, which represent 15 percent of Navajo reservation lands.

“We have more than 5K customers in an area with the total household count of over 8K homes,” he said.

Badal said it took a little while for employees of Sacred Wind to understand the significance of what they were creating together. But now, when his employees describe the company, they say, “We provide a voice to the people who are voiceless. And we provide a new level of opportunity to our customers.”

Badal said customer service is tremendously important at Sacred Wind. He got choked up when he told some of the stories about the things the company has done for people on the Navajo Nation.

“We’ve had adults come into our customer service office signing up their grandmother … It was the first time they’d ever been able to talk to their grandmother on the telephone,” he said.

In 2017 Sacred Wind started a solar program to provide customers with electricity. Badal said it had some of the employees and customers in tears, because they had electric power for the first time.

He also told the story of a Navajo family, a husband and wife and two children who lived at a distance from Gallup. The children had to live with the mother’s sister and her husband during the school week, because they had broadband and electricity. When the family was hooked up to solar power, they were able to bring their children home. Badal said they had a message for Sacred Wind. “Thank you for uniting our family.”

 

COVID-19 PANDEMIC BRINGS MORE TECHNOLOGY

Badal said the COVID-19 environment has created a huge surge in applications for broadband services from people who could not afford a monthly broadband service. Many became convinced of the need for communication links to hospitals, family members and online education.

The company was contacted by three different school districts, a local university, and the Gallup Indian Medical Center to create broadband services for students and the hospital.

Sacred Wind has partnered with Microsoft under the Airband Initiative to expand broadband access in McKinley, Cibola and San Juan counties to install free public access Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Airband Initiative was launched in 2017.

“Our goal is to extend broadband access to three million unserved people in rural America by 2022,” Shelley McKinley, Vice President of the Microsoft Technology and Corporate Responsibility Group said. “The  broadband gap disproportionately affects  Americans who reside in rural areas, preventing millions from accessing the economic, educational and social benefits that broadband internet can provide.

“According to the FCC and backed up by our own studies, Northwest New Mexico is one of the most underserved regions in the country when it comes to broadband availability. COVID-19 has put this reality into stark relief, leaving communities — including many in the Navajo Nation — without the ability to access telemedicine services, learn remotely, or work from home.

“In light of the pandemic, we built on our existing partnership with Sacred Wind Communications, to move quickly and help connect the community,” McKinley noted.

There are now seven Wi-Fi sites in the service territory, six of them were installed as part of the partnership with Microsoft, as were the set-ups in 60 homes. The public hotspots are:

 

  • Red Rock Chapter House
  • Tohajiilee Senior Center
  • Huerfano NHA (Ojo Amarillo)
  • Huerfano Chapter House
  • Nageezi Chapter House
  • Iyanbito Senior Center
  • Upper Fruitland Chapter House

 

An eighth one was set up at GIMC.  Sacred Wind also installed a temporary Tower on Wheels in Tohajiilee to extend broadband to additional homes while they are waiting for rights of way permits for a permanent tower. That tower can be converted to Wi-Fi if it is needed there.

The sites are active now, but they are not permanent. They will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Microsoft is covering the cost of equipment in some of the hotspot areas. It has also invested some money in the company’s infrastructure. Meantime, Sacred Wind has applied for a federal grant to expand its broadband.

Badal said the GIMC hotspot has already done something very important. It allowed a girl to talk to her grandfather for the last time. She went to the parking lot of the hospital and face-timed with her grandfather over her telephone the day before he died.

 

REACHING OUT

Badal said he wants to send a message out to the world for other companies that want to reach and serve tribal areas in the country.

“The larger national companies that have built networks across America are not able to invest as much as the rural communities need [in order] to bring them up to Twenty-First Century communications [standards] because their business plan is built around providing more profitable services in urban areas,” he explained.

“Our model … is built around directly serving the rural communities using a mix of technologies that the larger companies can’t afford to do. We’ve seen that this model using landline and fixed microwave has been really taking off,” he said. “And for the 500 tribes that don’t own and operate their own telephone systems, many of them can adopt this model.”

Sacred Wind completed a broadband network for the Pueblo of Laguna in 2015 and is building, designing and training workers for another network on the Pueblo of Acoma.

Badal has presented his model to six Sioux tribes in Montana at the Economic Development Office of the State and has held separate counseling sessions with other tribes from New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington State.

By Beth Blakeman
Associate Editor

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