Yavapai County, Arizona is pushing forward with a $20 million plan to shore up broadband access across the region. While dramatically scaled back from a $55 million proposal pushed last year, county leaders are hopeful that the effort still drives significant upgrades across the rugged and predominantly rural desert county.
Last fall, Yavapai County officials announced they would be committing $20 million of the county’s $45.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward its Broadband Final Mile Initiative, a project spearheaded by the Yavapai County Education Service Agency (YCESA) and designed to bring affordable broadband to every student in Arizona.
The county issued an RFP last October looking for broadband providers willing to use ARPA funding to push symmetrical 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) connections further into rural regions. The expansion was to lean heavily on a 2018 Yavapai County decision to spend $3.7 million on a fiber-optic middle mile network connecting 74 schools and libraries.
“The proposals have been reviewed and contracts have been awarded,” Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter told ILSR in an update. “Cox Communications has been awarded the contract for Black Canyon City and Congress, and Altice USA has been awarded the contract for Mayer, the Beaver Creek area, Cornville, and Paulden.”
Cox and Altice Win Grant Awards
More specifically, Cox was awarded $3,757,763 to expand service to 2,923 locations in two towns, and Altice was awarded $12,614,582 to expand service to 15,348 locations in five municipalities.
According to an Altice deployment schedule, homes should see service starting sometime in late 2023. The Cox Communications deployment schedule predicts that service should go live for currently unserved customers by July 2023.
“We are meeting with them every other week,” Carter said. “They are on target right now with the walk out, the engineering, and the permitting, and we are anticipating groundbreaking in October for Cox and probably for Altice in November or early December.”
Originally, the project had grander ambitions. A 2021 proposal by Magellan Advisors suggested spending more than $55 million to deliver broadband speeds of at least 400 Mbps to every last unserved person in the county via a broader coalition of different municipalities.
“Many locations have no choice in providers, making costs across the region high and service standards low compared with other areas,” the consultants found. “In many of the surveyed areas, both businesses and residents do not have access to broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps.”
The original proposal eyed using $20 million in ARPA funds, $30 million in funding from an Arizona Commerce Authority Rural Broadband Development Grant, and $5,345,589 in contributions from the 9 municipalities receiving county ARPA funding.
But things changed when the federal government loosened restrictions on how ARPA money could be spent. Carter notes that with those changes, towns and cities like Sedona, Prescott Valley, Clarkdale, Camp Verde, and Cottonwood decided to use funds for various infrastructure improvements, backing away from a broader broadband deployment coalition.
“We were pretty much on board with what everybody was going to do, but then the ARPA regulations changed,” Carter said. “That allowed every entity to take $10 million and use it basically however they wanted.”
As a result, Yavapai county decided the best path forward was to focus exclusively on putting their $20 million in broadband-designated ARPA funding to work immediately.
“What do they say…one in the hand is better than four or five in the bush?” Carter noted.
Numerous 'Broadband Islands' Will Remain Unserved
Once this $20 million project is complete, the county has identified numerous “broadband islands” that will remain unserved. While Yavapai does see more competition than many heavily-rural counties thanks to regional ISPs like Altice, Cox, and Sparklight, high prices, slow speeds, and spotty coverage still plague much of the region.
“We've identified 13 islands in Yavapai County that either currently don't have service or aren't part of those six [initial deployment proposals],” Carter said. “ Those are listed in the Q and A as to the areas that we're still going to need to find funding for in the future.”
One of the referenced Q&As estimates that delivering last mile fiber to every last unserved portion of unincorporated Yavapai County could cost anywhere between $99 and $176 million.
The county could look to leverage additional grant funding courtesy of the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA). County efforts will also work hand in hand with the $68.1 million Arizona Broadband Statewide Middle-Mile Strategic Plan aimed at shoring up affordable middle mile access along Interstate 40 West from Flagstaff to the California border.