Police on sprawling Navajo Nation to lose wireless capability

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 8-08

Police on the sprawling Navajo Nation were about to lose their access to wireless service, which enables them to file reports remotely and easily communicate with fellow officers in field.

A subcontractor that had provided satellite time for the Internet service planned to shutter it as of August 1 because of nonpayment for services. SES Americom, a subcontractor for Utah-based OnSat Network Communications Inc., said OnSat owes the company $4 million dollars.

“This is a backward step, it’s not a forward step,” said George Hardeen, a spokesman for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. “It’s unfortunate because the Navajo Nation was a leader in wireless communication, and certainly the president wants to regain that status as soon as possible.”

OnSat’s five-year contract with SES expired on June 30, and the company decided not to renew it because of the $4 million bill. At the request of the Federal Communications Commission, the shutdown of service was delayed temporarily, said Nancy Eskenazi, vice president and associate general counsel for SES. But she said service would end August 1st.

Eskenazi said OnSat has had months of notice that SES would not renew the contract with such a large balance.

“It is what it is, at this point,” she said. 


The loss of wireless access for police is the second recent blow to telecommunications in Navajo country. Just four months ago, about 70 of the tribe’s 110 chapter houses lost Internet service; they had been connected through E-rate, a program administered by the Universal Services Administration Company under the FCC.

USAC is withholding millions of dollars in funding to OnSat in a dispute over what OnSat had been charging the tribe and whether the tribe followed procurement and competitive bidding rules.

An e-mail message and calls to OnSat President Dave Stephens went unanswered. The Associated Press also left messages with an OnSat attorney, Cynthia Schultz, who specializes in the E-rate program.

OnSat has said it is unable to pay SES because USAC is withholding its money, which had already been approved.

The public safety network is not part of the E-rate program and had been paid for through federal grant money, Hardeen said.

Hardeen said police and other emergency responders still can access the Internet through land lines, two-way radios and other forms of communication. He said the safety of tribal members won’t be in jeopardy.

‘It’s how it used to be,” he said. “We’re not back to typewriters, but we’re functioning without wireless.”

Dozens of wireless access points had been set up across the vast reservation. Navajo police had been able to file reports miles away from their office and instantly communicate with their colleagues.

“In a community where there is already so little telecommunications infrastructure available, it is just plain disrespectful to the Navajo Nation to pull the plug on the systems they already have in place,” said former Arizona state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, whose district had included parts of the reservation.

“The Nation is already struggling to cope with losing internet access for its schools and libraries,” she said. Now, it appears that the few gains we have made moving toward a functional public safety network are taken away.”