Sacred Wind Communications will again be an industry pioneer in bringing broadband access to the Sierra County south of Williamsburg.
Company CEO John Badal described SWC’s broadband partnership with Sierra Electric Cooperative as a fortuitous and first-ever meshing of expertise. SWC’s Director of Sales and Strategic Partnerships Misti Willock, who has a home in Sierra County, was aware of the lack of broadband service in most parts of the county. She began conversations with SEC Manager Denise Barrera and Sierra County Manager Bruce Swingle about how SWC might help to bridge the digital divide here, as the company has done for its primary customers, the Navajo Nation.
Badal said that joint venture by the two companies and county government is a “ground-breaking” model of cooperation. This is the first time in New Mexico that an electric cooperative and a telecommunications company have begun working together to bring broadband to a rural community so lacking in access. SEC will provide much of the infrastructure for the project, while SWC will provide the broadband expertise.
Established in 2006 and based in Yatahey, NM, SWC began operations as a privately owned phone and broadband company in the northwest quadrant of New Mexico, where the company has brought high-quality telecommunications services to 400 square miles of mostly Navajo lands, but also some other parts of McKinley and Cibola counties. The Sierra County project will be its first foray into the southern part of the state.
Badal estimates that the total cost for the project, which entails building a 271-mile fiber optic network to directly connect about 1,600 people to broadband services, will exceed $9 million. SWC has received a $6.1 million grant from the US. Department of Agriculture to bring broadband to rural areas and a matching $2.1 million from the New Mexico Department of Information Technology to help with Phase 1, the engineering portion of the project. Other funding will come directly from SWC.
Badal said that the grants from the USDA and DoIT are essential to bringing broadband to an area like Sierra County, where the terrain is difficult and the density of future customers is low, though not as low as in the Navajo communities. Without government support, this would not be a good business venture for SWC.
Phase 1 will take several months. All network routes will be surveyed and permits obtained wherever public and private lands must be crossed. Where needed, updated environmental and archeological permits will have to be obtained. Most of the broadband fiber will be strung on existing SEC poles, but some will be buried. Every pole must be examined and will be replaced if it does not meet the necessary criteria.
SWC will be assisted by a subcontractor, Finley Engineering, a nationwide consulting firm serving the broadband and energy industries, with which SWC had a prior working relationship. Finley co-authored the Sierra County Broadband Strategic Plan (which you can read here).
The grants to SWC are limited to the southern portion of Sierra County. Providing broadband access to the other parts of the county is dependent on the availability of FCC licenses, which were recently put up for auction. Badal could not yet comment on the results of the auction or say whether SWC will be involved in additional projects here.
SWC plans to open an office in the county and several technicians to maintain the infrastructure and operate the business will be located here. SWC will also partner with SEC to develop an interactive website, allowing Sierra County residents to enter their addresses and determine if they will be able to access SWC’s broadband service and when it will be available. SEC Manager Barrera said that one of the requirements of the partnership is that all of SEC customers in the area to be serviced have access to broadband service.