Huge fiber loop planned around Tucson to boost Internet service for rural Pima County

Pima County is slated to obtain a 134-mile line of fiber Internet infrastructure to create a ring encircling the urban core of Tucson, intended to provide high-speed Internet access to rural and historically underserved areas.

The Biden administration on Friday announced more than $930 million in grants for high-speed Internet infrastructure across the country, of which Pima County will receive $30.3 million over five years from the National Telecommunications Information Administration.

The county plans to build an open access fiber loop it calls the average mile infrastructure project to rapidly transport large amounts of data over long distances that the county says should reach one-third of the county’s population.

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The county and neighboring jurisdictions are required to provide $12.5 million in additional funding for the project, bringing the total investment closer to $43 million.

One of the significant things about broadband access is that when that happens, economies, communities thrive, County Administrator Jan Lesher said at a news conference Friday. We know that the statistics are there and that the areas that have greater access to broadband services earn more, their wages are higher, there is lower unemployment and there are more opportunities for economic development.

The middle mile infrastructure will consist of high-capacity fiber lines that Internet providers can use to deliver high-speed Internet services to end users. The first phases of the project will begin within the next fiscal year beginning July 1, the county said, and will involve implementation of compliance guidelines from the National Environmental Policy Act which requires certain environmental protections for federal projects.

It will take significant construction to build the underground fiber lines over the next few years, said Javier Baca, Pima County director of information technology, and the project will include anchor points for Internet service providers to connect.

This means that Internet Service Providers will not have to lay out fiber infrastructure themselves to reach low density areas yielding minimal return on investment. Instead, fiber will already be available for providers to connect rural residents to the internet.

This ring doesn’t itself provide Internet service, it provides access to those Internet service providers in a much more convenient way for those Internet service providers to enter the market, Baca said.

Nearly 10 percent of households in Pima County lack access to broadband Internet, according to Federal Communications Commission data. Some communities reached by the new fiber line showed up to 18 percent of households lacked Internet access, the county said.

Rex Scott, the Pima County supervisor who presides over District 1, said he often hears concerns from voters about a lack of Internet access in Catalina and other foothill areas. Such concerns have increased as many students have transitioned to online remote learning models during the pandemic, creating barriers for those without internet access.

When it comes to education, we shouldn’t have a system of rich and poor, and this is the part of this grant that excites me the most, because it will give troubled families and their children access to schools that many take for granted. Scott said.

The new project adds to the ongoing Connect Pima program which aims to build broadband infrastructure and increase Internet access throughout the county, while promoting digital literacy among residents. The counties are working with the city of Tucson to expand Internet access throughout the region and are currently working to make sure the city’s fiber network connects with the counties to avoid two different networks, said Chris Mazzarella, chief information officer. Tucson officer.

This is a key part of the infrastructure, just like roads are, Mazzarella said. When we look at these capabilities of fiber, it not only fills the gap immediately and not only helps with some of those underserved areas, but it also ensures that we’re well positioned for the future for decades to come.

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