Navajo Nation: History

As part of the Native American Access to Technology Program spearheaded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) completed its first-ever project in the United States in October 2001.

Situated in the sun-filled states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, the Navajo Nation is home to approximately 200,000 Navajo Indians. Despite its location in the heart of the world’s richest nation, much of the Navajo Reservation still lacks paved roads, clean water, dependable electricity, and consistent telephone service. Over half of the Navajo people live below the poverty line.

Native Americans are also among those at the farthest reach of the digital divide, unable to take advantage of the internet’s rich resources, tools, and information to pursue educational and economic opportunities.

In an effort to bridge this gap, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiated the Native American Access to Technology Program, which offers grants to Indian tribes for the acquisition of computers, Internet access, and other information technology.

The people of the Kaibeto Chapter of the Navajo Nation were resettled in the northeastern corner of Coconino County, Arizona in the 1840’s.

The Kaibeto community’s central meeting hall, or Chapter House, had neither dependable telephones nor electricity. When Kaibeto was selected as the site for a Gates Foundation project, the problem of telephone service (and, therefore, Internet connectivity) was overcome with assistance from OnSat Network Communications, a company that brings satellite Internet access to remote locales, both in the U.S. and in developing countries.

A satellite dish needs reliable electricity, of course, as do computers. To meet this challenge, OnSat enlisted the support of the Solar Electric Light Fund, with whom OnSat was teaming on a project deep in the Brazilian Amazon’s Xixuaú-Xipariná Ecological Reserve. Using solar panels, Kaibeto would be able to plug into the area’s abundant sunshine, and gain power that would be not just dependable, but clean and affordable besides.

After careful study of the power needs presented by the project, SELF designed a system consisting of twelve 75-watt BP Solar mono-crystalline panels. The array provided sufficient electricity for four Gateway computers, networking equipment, a scanner, a printer, and an Internet-connected satellite dish.

In order to ensure that the solar power system will provide long and trusty service, Kaibeto residents were trained in how to troubleshoot and care for all components, particularly the system batteries.

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