At a Special Elgin School Board meeting held on Nov. 17, 2021, Sonoita School District Superintendent Mary Faley, along with the school’s Information Technology Specialist, Leonard Sadorf, and several state and business representatives, provided an overview for the public and the Board on the school’s Fiber Project, and Final Mile Project.
The Fiber Project
Faley reported that the school started about one year ago to bring broadband fiber to the school, and after considerable collaboration with staff, county, and state officials, issued a bid solicitation in Spring 2021. Two bids were reviewed by a panel who selected Zayo, a leading provider of infrastructure, and networks in major markets in North America and Western Europe. Zayo currently provides services to over 8,000 schools, libraries and district offices serving over 4 million students across 24 states and is also constructing over 2,000 miles of fiber build for schools.
The cost to bring the fiber to the school is $782,000; however, the Federal Communication Commission’s National E-rate program will fund 90% of the cost. The E-rate program was established for schools and libraries to receive discounts on telecommunications and services, and internet access, as well as internal connections, managed internal broadband services and basic maintenance. Discounts range from 20% to 90% based on the poverty level of the schools. Rural schools and libraries may also receive a higher discount. The national E-Rate Program 2021 budget exceeds $4.2 billion.
Due to declining enrollment, Faley said she was hesitant to use district funds for the remaining 10% cost ($78,200). She contacted Milan Eaton, the Arizona E-Rate Director, who agreed to fill the void with state grants. Faley also confirmed that there would be no costs for the project that would impact the district taxpayers’ rates and no impact on the local budget. According to Eaton, the cost of cable will be less than what the school pays now for internet, and they will receive ten times as much power at one gigabyte.
At the public meeting Greg West, project director for Zayo, reported that the fiber project is in progress. Cable would begin at their existing structure near the Elgin-Sonoita Fire Station and then traverse both above and underground, following SR 83 to Harvest Rd., up Wagon Wheel Dr., then east to the school. Zayo already has all the fiber, conduit, and pole attachments on hand.
Along the route there are approximately 20 property owners, with existing poles, that are outside the ADOT right of way. Zayo will reach out to these owners to obtain permission to use these poles. The cable would be placed on the poles, above existing wires and will not impact electrical lines.
To cross SR 82, Zayo will drill under the road , work they plan to begin in a few weeks pending ADOT approval. The project is targeted for completion during the first quarter of 2022. Once the fiber reaches the school, the infrastructure is already in place to get broadband into the classrooms.
The Final Mile Project
The Final Mile Project is the school’s second broadband priority, designed to bring internet equity to rural students and families who have either no home internet, slow internet, or unaffordable internet. The project is spearheaded by the Arizona Rural Schools Association along with the Arizona Business and Education Coalition and the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents.
According to Kathy Hoffman, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Arizona Department of Education funded $1.5M for the Final Mile Project in March 2021. They are working through the federal E-Rate program to help bridge the digital divide for rural students.
Superintendent Faley stated that “Milan Eaton recently contacted me to see if Sonoita Elementary District would be interested in participating in the Final Mile Project. The goal of the program is to connect families in rural districts to high-speed internet, sufficient to participate in remote learning.”
Faley said that, based on a survey, they identified 36 families who either cannot receive existing internet, cannot afford internet, or have internet that is not reliable.
She is working with Eaton to prepare a Request for Proposal (RFP) which will include the addresses of the families requiring high speed internet and expects soon to issue the solicitation for bids. The vendor bids must include a description as to how they plan to reach the identified addresses. She will then convene a panel and select a vendor.
According to Eaton, the state is working on the first phase of the Final Mile Project with five rural district sites that already have fiber capability and will soon move on to the next five, which will include Sonoita Elementary School District.
Eaton also stated that the cost to families under the program will be $10 per month; however, use of the internet will be limited to educational materials, which excludes programs such as Netflix, but includes distance learning, google searches, and remote teacher meetings.
In addition to utilizing existing towers, Eaton stated the state may be able to fund one or two additional towers to support the Final Mile Project.
Although the School’s RFP will only cover families needing the high-speed internet, the vendor would have the opportunity to generate considerable funds by expanding the enhanced broadband structure to the community. This would create more internet options for residents and potentially reach those who require additional infrastructure.
Ultimately, the Sonoita School District, the Fire District, business community, non-profits, and residents may all benefit from the infrastructure that the school district and state and federal programs partnered to achieve to enhance educational tools for local students.