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Cell Phones on the Rez

The Gap Trading Post along Highway 89 on the western side of the Navajo Nation. There's no cell phone service for 65 miles along this stretch of highway.
The Gap Trading Post along Highway 89 on the western side of the Navajo Nation. There's no cell phone service for 65 miles along this stretch of highway.

By Daniel Kraker

Gap-Bodaway, AZ – Host intro:

Eight years ago President Clinton visited the Navajo Nation. He spoke about the Navajo Code Talkers, U.S. marines who were used to send unbreakable messages in code during World War II.

For more than 50 years after the Codetalkers were able to communicate with one another over great distances in the Pacific, it is still hard to communicate between many parts of the Navajo Nation itself.

Nearly a decade later it can still be difficult. Clinton's plan to bring cell phone service to the country's largest Indian reservation has been largely successful. But there are still some reservation towns that don't have any service, because of geography, and sometimes, bureaucracy. As Daniel Kraker reports from KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau, that can have sometimes drastic consequences.

SFX1: sneak up highway sound under track

Arizona Highway 89 carries thousands of people everyday through the remote western side of the Navajo reservation to Lake Powell. Two years ago Perry Slim was selling Navajo tacos from a roadside stand when a vanful of Japanese tourists flipped over. Slim tried calling 9-1-1 from his cell phone, but couldn't get service. He had to drive to the top of a nearby cliff to make the call. By the time an ambulance arrived, a man had bled to death.

AX2: To this day I still vision it, you know, an actual life has passed on right in front of me, that could have been avoided by having these cell phone towers.

Highway 89 cuts through a stark landscape of sheer cliffs and big blue skies. The geology is stunning, but it also wreaks havoc with cell signal.

SFX2: X-fade highway sound with bed from Kinsley, wind blowing, flag blowing against flagpole

Brian Kinsley manages grazing lands for the tiny community of Gap-Bodaway, 8 miles down the highway from the accident Slim witnessed.

AX3: Basically we're in a black zone area right along this ridge, along this highway, for about 65 miles, it's the wild wild west still, only way we can communicate is smoke signals, laugh

Locals know the high spots where they get cell reception. In Gap-Bodaway they drive a couple miles up a steep dirt road to a notch in the cliffs that line this valley.

SFX3: x-fade Kinsley bed with Lee office tone

Dorothy Lee is the community services coordinator here. She laughs when I ask her the Navajo word for cell phone.

AX4: phrase in Navajo, that means you're twirling with an instrument, I know it's a funny name, but that's what they call it .

And there's another word for it.

AX5: another word in Navajo Yeah, they call it that too, means you run up on the hill with it and make a call laugh

Navajo people clearly have a sense of humor about their spotty phone service, but that doesn't mean they aren't frustrated.

The phone here at the Gap-Bodaway chapter house is the only land-line in an area that spans nearly one million acres. And on the day I visit it's not even working. Lee says people line up at 8 a.m. to make important calls.

AX6: A lot of them are for job, and people leave their phone numbers, our phone numbers with the possible employer, they'd get called back here, and a lot of them would be coming by here to get a message those days I'm the secretary and telephone operator for one phone in the whole valley laugh.

60 percent of Navajo families still don't have home phones, because it's so expensive to string traditional phone lines to far-flung homesteads. Many do have cell phones now, thanks in large part to a federal program that offers them for one dollar a month. But there are still large sections of the reservation where those phones don't work, because there aren't enough cell towers.

And that's due in part to roadblocks within the Navajo Nation itself. Jack Doggett is a real estate broker who's worked on the reservation for ten years securing property rights for wireless companies. He says the process to approve a cell tower at the tribal capitol is unbelievably slow.

There's just one fella working on it out in Window Rock, and it sits in his office sometimes for two months with nothing happening, in most cities it would be processed in a matter of weeks. When that's done, it goes through another month or so shuffling from one desk to another before it gets issued.

Then it goes to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, what Doggett calls the bane of Navajo commercial life, where it can sit for several more months. Still, the process is smoother now than it's ever been. Last summer tribal leaders agreed to streamline it, and lower the rental rates they were charging for tower sites, which were more than double what cell companies were paying off the reservation. Richard Watkins is CEO of Show Low based Cellular One, the largest wireless provider on the reservation. He's planning forty new towers for the reservation in the next year. It's big news, Watkins says, when a tiny Navajo town gets service for the first time.

AX7: We'll do what's called a tower dedication ceremony for that community, the medicine man will go out and bless it it's hard for a lot of people to understand what it would mean to be without communications period, and then all of a sudden receive it for many, they've never used a telephone before.

Cellular One plans to bring wireless internet to reservation homes within the next three years. But in the reservation town of Gap-Bodaway, local officials will be plenty happy just to get phone service. They hope five new towers along Highway 89 will be completed next spring. But they're waiting to plan their celebration until they get official approval from the Navajo government. The applications have been stuck at tribal headquarters since February.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker on the Navajo Nation.