LIANE HANSEN, host:
Eight years ago, President Clinton visited a Navajo reservation. He spoke about the code talkers. U.S. Marines, who, during World War II, sent messages in a Navajo language. The Japanese were never able to break the code.
President BILL CLINTON: For more than 50 years after the code talkers 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.
HANSEN: Nearly a decade later, it is still hard and the reason is lack of cell phone service. Clinton's plan to bring cell phone capability to the country's largest Indian reservation has only been partially successful. It's been blocked by both bureaucracy and geography.
And as Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports, gaps and coverage can have drastic consequences.
DANIEL KRAKER: 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(ph) was selling Navajo tacos from a roadside stand, when a van full of Japanese tourists flipped over. Slim tried calling 911 from his cell phone but couldn't get service. He had to drive to the top of the nearby cliff to make the call. By the time an ambulance arrived, a man had bled to death.
Mr. PETER SLIM (Businessman): And to this day I still vision it, you know. An actual life has passed on right in front of me.
KRAKER: 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. Brian Kensley manages Grazing Lands for the tiny community of Gap Bodaway, eight miles down the highway from the accident Slim witnessed.
Mr. BRIAN KENSLEY (Grazing Official, Bodaway-Gap): Basically, we're just in the black zone area right along this ridge and along this highway from - for about 65 miles. It's a unique area just because of the undeveloped area, this was in that same ranges. There's no gas station too. So it's a wild, Wild West, you know. We don't have - the only way we can communicate is smoke signal.
KRAKER: 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 and the cliffs that lines this valley. Dorothy Lee is the community services coordinator here. She laughs when I asked her the Navajo word for cell phone.
Ms. DOROTHY LEE (Community Services Coordinator, Gap Bodaway): (Speaking in foreign language).
KRAKER: The what?
Ms. LEE: That means - you're twirling with it, an instrument. I know it's a funny name but that's what they call it.
KRAKER: And there's another word for it.
Ms. LEE: (Speaking in foreign language) Yeah. They call that too. It means you run up on the hill with it and make a call.
KRAKER: Navajo people clearly have a sense of humor about their spotty phone service, but that doesn't mean they aren't frustrated. Sixty percent of families still don't have home phones. Many do have cell phones now. Thanks in large part to a federal program began under Clinton 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 powers. And that's due in part to roadblocks within the Navajo nation itself. Jack Doug(ph) is a real estate broker, who's worked on the reservation for 10 years securing property rights for wireless companies.
Mr. JACK DOUG (Real Estate Broker): It would probably take something like 18 months to get a site approved on the Navajo nation, where it would take six months in the city like Flag Staff or Prescott or Phoenix. And the rate they were charging was more than double what they'd pay for those same property rights in a big city.
KRAKER: But now, there's a new urgency to solve the problem. Tribal leaders have agreed to streamline the approval process and lower the rental rates. Richard Watkins, CEO of a small company called Cellular One, says he's planning 40 new towers for the reservation in the next year. He says it's big news when a tiny Navajo town gets service for the first time.
Mr. RICHARD WATKINS (CEO, Cellular One): What we'll do is draw the tower dedication ceremony for that community. The (unintelligible) men will come out and blast it. I think it's hard for a lot of people to understand what would it be to be without communications, period. And then all of the sudden to receive it. For many of them, they've never used a telephone before.
KRAKER: In the reservation town of Gap Bodaway, local officials hope new towers 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 NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.