Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
PINE HILL – Herds of sheep roam the green hillsides of the Ramah Navajo chapter.
The rugged, remote landscape southwest of Grants is dotted with a network of unpaved roads that can quickly become impassable during rain and snowstorms.
At first glance, it may not seem like a place where rural residents could rely on fast internet.
But tribal and school officials are determined to work with a local company and provide internet to everyone.
Oso Internet Solutions co-owner Margaret Merrill first came to Ramah in the late 1970s as a student teacher.
She launched the small internet company after a decades-long teaching career in her adopted community.
Merrill sees federal internet project funding as a game changer for the company’s 500-square-mile service area.
“Remoteness should not be a deficit in education,” she said.
The Ramah Navajo Chapter recently finished a $1.5 million project to connect the school, chapter house and clinic to fast internet.
Now, Oso Internet Solutions will use $6.6 million in federal funds to bring fiber optic internet to the chapter’s most rural residents.
Funding for the initial fiber project came from the federal government’s E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries connect to affordable internet.
The $6.6 million announced in July is from the Emergency Connectivity Program.
It will bring fast internet to Ramah students and other residents living in the community’s most remote areas.
Securing project money and approval is a team effort by residents who know firsthand that fast, reliable internet is key to education, telemedicine and business opportunities.
Sharmaine Chee graduated from Pine Hill School in 2022 as the class salutatorian.
She is about to start her freshman year at the University of New Mexico studying speech pathology.
Oso Internet connected Chee’s family home and hogan to fast internet about four years ago.
“During the pandemic, it made it so much easier to communicate with my teachers and turn in assignments and get ready for college,” she said.
Pine Hill and the larger Ramah Navajo reservation are textbook examples of remote New Mexico communities.
The area of hills and valleys is a checkerboard of federal, private, tribal and state land ownership.
Construction and utility projects often require piles of paperwork.
Power outages are not uncommon, so Oso Internet has a backup generator to prevent service interruptions.
News of the new fiber internet project has traveled fast in Ramah.
Many students and residents are excited that their remote homesites will soon have fast service.
Connecting the community will not just benefit students.
Eastern Navajo Land Board member Rodger Martinez said local farmers and ranchers want to use the high-speed internet for technology that will help them plan grazing rotations and planting each year.
Ramah Navajo chapter president David Jose sees the project as bringing positive change and education to several generations.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 laid bare New Mexico’s inequities in internet access and educational resources.
Those gaps are much wider in tribal communities.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission estimates that 46.6% of homes on tribal lands have basic broadband access.
That number is 92% on nontribal lands.
But Ramah may have been more prepared than many communities for remote classes and work, thanks to Oso Internet.
David C. Nez, Pine Hill School superintendent and principal, said students and teachers adapted quickly to the pandemic because about 64% already had internet at home.
The campus serves about 300 students in grades K-12.
“The (project) work is continuous, just like a school,” Nez said. “I think it’s a heroic effort.”
Before fiber-optic internet was installed, the school and much of the community operated on a satellite system.
Connections were spotty at best.
That was especially true on cloudy and stormy days, said Robia Adeky-Wood, a PHS graduate who works in the school’s IT department and coordinates standardized testing.
“The old system was so slow, and the students were getting kicked off the network all the time,” she said. “Now it’s super fast, and everyone can be on it at once. Especially with this new fiber reaching more kids in their homes, everything is just going to be a whole lot easier.”
Federal & state funding
The pandemic’s challenges may also prove to be a turning point for rural infrastructure.
A new state Broadband Office received $133 million from the New Mexico Legislature last year for internet expansion projects.
The federal bipartisan infrastructure law directs at least $100 million to New Mexico broadband.
And this week, the U.S. Commerce Department announced $147 million to fund internet projects for New Mexico tribes and pueblos, including:
⋄ $6.9 million for Jicarilla Apache Nation
⋄ $43.9 million for Mescalero Apache
⋄ $26 million for Isleta Pueblo
⋄ $57.3 million for Santa Fe Indian School
⋄ $12.8 million for Santo Domingo Pueblo
Ramah leaders often cite the story of founding school board member Bertha Lorenzo when discussing their duty to serve students and the community.
In 1970, Lorenzo was frustrated by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs not responding to funding requests for a Ramah school.
So she threw down her blanket in the agency’s D.C. office doorway and refused to leave until she received the money.
Martha Garcia, superintendent of the Ramah Navajo School Board, said that legacy continues, and local officials are good at “getting things done.”
She remembers when Ramah students had to attend boarding schools across New Mexico and the country.
The internet project, she said, is important for ensuring children have educational opportunities in their own communities.
“We want our kids to maintain that language,” Garcia said. “We want them to maintain the culture and become strong and know who they are.”
Merrill is also looking forward to the day when the additional fiber optic cables will be installed underground, a system she calls the “best of the best.”
“We’re dedicated and devoted to getting to everybody we can possibly get to,” Merrill said.