Sacred Wind: Bringing WiMAX to the Navajo reservation

Editor's note: This is the second installment in a series of stories that will appear periodically in FierceBroadbandWireless highlighting the deployment of wireless broadband in rural communities. Click here for "Georgia citizens take broadband into their own hands."

Long before anyone talked of federal stimulus money for rural broadband deployments, there was Sacred Wind Communications--a small incumbent local exchange carrier in New Mexico that has found and continues to look for innovative ways to connect the thousands of remote homes in the state's Navajo reservation with both basic telephone service and high-speed Internet access.

John Badal, Sacred Wind's chief executive officer, served as president of Qwest New Mexico in the early 2000s. His biggest challenge was trying to bring basic telephone service to the Navajo Nation, the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States and whose area encompasses 27,000 square miles in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Laying copper cable throughout the rugged desert area to connect a relatively small number of people who couldn't afford to pay much for service wasn't economically feasible.

In four years, Qwest only managed to bring phone service to 42 new customers--out of thousands. "It took us two years to get through the rights of way process. Six of those homes had moved by the time the process was completed. It would have taken 45 years to reach 70 percent of the homes in our territory," Badal said. "We needed a different technology altogether. We needed to go wireless."

Determined to bring a dial tone and the Internet to the Navajo people, Badal decided to create a telephone company dedicated solely to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and enlisted the help of three other telecom experts to do so. The group found Qwest amenable to selling its territory and customer base on the Navajo lands in New Mexico. It then went through the regulatory process at the FCC to become a LEC and applied for and received a $70 million loan from the US Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS). That was in 2004.

In 2006, Sacred Wind Communications opened for business. The name sacred wind is significant for the Navajo people. Sacred Winds are a spiritual force in Navajo folklore and tradition that gave life to all beings and things in nature. They are also the communications between man and divinity. Because the company was delivering communications wirelessly, the name seemed relevant.

Sacred Wind is using a combination of technologies, including point-to-point wireless and fixed WiMAX, to bring both dial-tone and broadband connectivity to homes that are few and far between. When the company bought Qwest's operations, it got 2,200 customers served off a copper wire, but it didn't have the trunking facilities. It basically had to begin its operations from scratch, building its own wireless backhaul back to its switches. New customers signal directly from the company's backbone towers to aggregation sites, bypassing the copper line altogether. As a result, customers with telephone service can move from dial-up connections to high-speed Internet connections of 500 Kbps or more.

Today, Sacred Wind supports 2,700 customers, and its latest challenge is to bring dial-tone service to another 6,000 households that are sometimes spaced a half mile from each other. The company is tackling that problem by incorporating fixed WiMAX technology from Fujitsu in the 3.65 GHz band...Continued

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