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ABQ company brings phone, internet to reservation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — About a dozen families in remote Navajo Nation areas are enjoying home Internet and phone service for the first time through a novel project launched by Albuquerque-based Sacred Wind Communications.

The project, which will ultimately benefit about 150 Navajo families, provides a free home solar system and installation to generate electricity for telecommunications equipment. The program will cost at least $450,000, half of it paid for through the state’s Universal Service Fund, and the other half by Sacred Wind through a low-cost federal loan.

The USF is funded through a surcharge on all customers’ bills to help telecommunications companies provide services in remote areas. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission unanimously approved USF money for the project last September.

PRC commissioners Lynda Lovejoy and Sandy Jones toured some of the first homes to receive installations on Thursday.

“There are so many people in this area who need communication services but can’t get it because they have no electricity,” Lovejoy said. “By thinking outside the box, Sacred Wind proposed using solar energy to power up these homes, and we embraced the idea.”

PRC Commissioner Sandy Jones,left, Sacred Wind Customer Steven Charley and PRC Commissioner Lynda Lovejoy in front of a Sacred Wind solar unit.

The 300-watt solar systems provide enough electricity to power a roof-based radio antenna, a modem, a home telephone, one laptop or tablet, one television, and one lamp. Sacred wind provides and installs all that equipment for free, including a lamp. Families just pay monthly fees for services.

Sacred Wind, which launched in 2006 and employs 46 people, is the only private telecommunications firm in the country dedicated to providing services solely on tribal lands, said CEO John Badal.

“Our customers live in vastly different geographical areas and conditions, some of them in U.S. Housing and Urban Development communities, and some just out on the grasslands,” Badal said. “Many have no access to electricity or can’t afford a hookup. Families who benefit from this program represent only a small portion of total need, but we’re cooperating with rural electric utilities in our area to fill in a gap until they can get services out there.”

Sacred Wind serves about 41,000 customers, primarily on the Navajo Nation. In 2013, it also installed a $3.3 million system, funded by a federal grant, to wirelessly connect all of Laguna Pueblo’s six villages to the Internet for the first time.

The company’s network is a hybrid system that sends a wireless signal directly to houses using fixed wireless technology in combination with copper and fiber optic land lines.

Jones said it was “touching” to see families with phone service for the first time.

“Some of these people have had to drive 30 or 40 miles to use pay phones,” Jones said. “This is a good use of USF money that’s directly impacting people’s lives.”