The vast, rural Tohono O'odham Nation - where telephone service is still considered a luxury for many residents - is about to take a technological jump.

The tribe has won a grant from the U.S. government to bring high-speed Internet to each of its 56 villages.

It will receive more than $7.1 million through grants and loans to improve Internet access as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The upgrade is desperately needed, said Charles Wiese, general manager of the Tohono O'odham Utility Authority, because much of the reservation lacks access to modern technologies.

"This year I have heard some of my customers say that they think that telephone is a luxury, so if telephone is a luxury what is Internet connection? It is kind of off the scale," Wiese said. "We are trying to make telephone a necessity and Internet a tool that everyone can access and use."

Construction on the project could begin in the next 60 days and is expected to be completed within two or three years, he said.

The utility authority currently has 450 Internet customers, compared to 1,700 residential phone customers, he said. There are 14,000 Tohono O'odham tribal members.

Computer use is rare on the reservation due to widespread poverty, and the fact that computers are not required in the nation's schools, Wiese said.

The hope is that installing broadband will not only encourage more Internet usage and improve educational opportunities, but also help to attract more businesses to the area, he said.

"If people start thinking along the lines of what they can do with it," he said, "it can do some really good things."

Wiese said it is unclear how many workers will be hired for the project, adding that the preference will be to hire mostly tribal members.

Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, issued a statement thanking U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, for his support of the proposal.

This project is part of a nationwide initiative by the U.S. Agriculture Department to bring Internet access to rural communities, said Nancy Conway a spokeswoman for the department's Arizona office.

Overall the U.S. government has invested $150 million in 12 projects across eight states, Conway said.

Wiese said the utility authority was denied another grant that would have allowed it to give away 1,000 free computers to residents who could demonstrate an educational or economic benefit. But he said there's still a possibility the utility authority will donate the computers on its own.

The federal government announced Thursday it is also investing more than $32 million in stimulus funds to help the sprawling Navajo Nation build a high-speed Internet highway, The Associated Press reports.

Navajo communities in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah will benefit from 550 miles of new fiber optic cables and 59 microwave towers capable of blanketing 15,000 square miles.

Sixty percent of residents on that reservation also lack basic telephone service, and many Navajo communities have unemployment levels that exceed 40 percent.

Contact NASA Space Grant intern Ian Friedman at 434-4083 or at friedman@azstarnet.com