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In San Juan, Utah, a Snapshot of a School District’s Struggle to Bring Broadband Home

The fight for broadband infrastructure in one Utah community. Is private enterprise the end goal?



Chris Monson with Wesley Hunt on Abajo Peak tower. Photo courtesy of Monson.

SAN JUAN, Utah, May 12, 2021 – The over-year-old Covid-19 pandemic has forced schools across the nation to grapple with an unprecedented reality: how to seamlessly bring the learning experience to the home.

Broadly, the discussion has largely centered on how to get sufficient broadband to areas to facilitate school-from-home scenarios – without much digging into the intricacies of the challenges. In some locations broadband adoption is an obstacle because residents who have access to broadband choose not to subscribe for various reasons.

But in some remote regions, the struggle is in the infrastructure itself that is preventing basic internet access.

The San Juan school district in southern Utah is one such community, whose struggles include the not-so-novel challenge of simply powering communications infrastructure.

The remoteness problem

Home to some of the most spectacular vistas in the world, there is a desolate beauty here that exists far from the busy offices and bustling streets of city life. But with that seclusion comes the challenges of rural living away from the amenities of urban centers, including access to broadband.

Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona border. Photo courtesy of Jean-Christophe Benoist

“There isn’t infrastructure here like there is in a city. It’s not just rural, it’s isolated,” said Kim Schaefer, principal at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, Utah. Many of the students live in remote pockets around the Navajo Nation tribal land, and would often only get electricity from solar panels or generators, and some don’t even have running water, she said.

When the pandemic closed schools a year ago, learning shifted to online courses through Canvas, a web-based system used by many universities and lower education institutions. But the San Juan school district quickly realized that the majority of their students couldn’t connect from home, Schaefer explained.

To solve the problem, the district began what would turn out to be a year-long colossal task to connect more than 500 students to the online system to continue their education. It first began with sending Chromebook laptops home with the kids and setting up hotspots at key locations so that they wouldn’t have to drive more than 30 minutes to connect, explained Chris Monson, network administrator for the school district.

The schools sent assignments home with the students, often along with lunches, either by bus or the students drove to the school to pick up their supplies. For the kids who couldn’t connect at home to Canvas, they often had to take pictures of their homework with a cell phone and send it to their teachers, but even that didn’t work sometimes because of poor service coverage throughout the region, Schaefer said.

Over the summer, Schaefer along with other school and district administrators worked with the Navajo Nation to figure out what needed to be done to improve the connectivity for students. With the help of San Juan school district Education Technology Director Aaron Brewer, the State of Utah legislature awarded a $3.9-million grant in August 2020 to build a large tower network.

The funding came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March 2020, explained Rebecca Dilg from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Some towers for the network were already in place, but they needed several more to bring service to locations that were otherwise left in the dark.

A radio tower they are using to get power around a mesa to the Oljato community. Photo courtesy of Chris Monson.

The power infrastructure problem

But building the network wasn’t a simple task of erecting towers in a straight line from one geographic point to another, because of the difficult topography in the region, Monson said. Some areas needed additional towers to swing the spectrum signal around large mesas, such as for the Oljato community.

The project required significant cooperation from various entities in the county. The school district partnered with several organizations to build the new network or use existing towers, including Select Tech, Vikor, Elk Petroleum and the Utah Navajo Health System.

In some areas, a lack of electricity prevented the use of towers to power the signal needed for the network. Monson said they’ve been working hard with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to get power to communities lacking electricity, but it’s still a major challenge.

After the grant funding was approved in August, permitting, contracts and other “red tape” was preventing them from moving forward, Monson said. In October, the permits and contracts finally went through, but the funding was only approved through the end of December, giving them about two months to complete the project.

They recruited as many people as possible from the Navajo Nation and other localities who had the necessary training, but the manpower still wasn’t enough. The crews worked 12 to 14 hours per day, every day, with no one taking vacation between October and end of December, Monson said. By the end of the December, with substantial work still to finish, they were expecting the funding to be cut off.

On December 30 around 3:00 p.m., Monson received a phone call that an extension for the funding had been approved through June 30, 2021. “That allowed the team to step back and figure out how to manage this better and utilize our resources instead of running around like chickens with our heads cut off,” he said. Another $800,000 was later approved when they realized they didn’t have enough money, he said.

The hope for private enterprise

Many students can now connect to their remote classrooms, but the project is still underway. Monson said they’ve connected about 200 homes, and hope to have over 500 connected by early June.

The project is not to deliver home internet access or compete with private service providers. Access to certain websites like social media are still blocked. Rather, it is intended to “move the classroom into the home,” Monson said, “Whatever they could do before in the classroom, they can do now in the home.”

Schaefer said they’ve had to change the curriculum significantly to meet the needs of the students in their remote learning environment. They built whole new aspects of the curriculum from the ground up, which was a major challenge, she said.

Some of the curriculum included science portions where students observed plants and animals in their home environment, for example. They also developed learning units based on the Utah State Board of Education’s “portrait of a graduate” concept, with four key areas that Schaefer called the “four C’s”: Critical thinking, Communication, Creativity and Collaboration.

Monson said the new network will help the school district into the future, but hopes it isn’t needed long term. They are hoping that in the future more service providers will move into the area and acquire the infrastructure the school district has built to provide better broadband to San Juan county residents, he said.

Many states recognize the need for better broadband projects, especially for rural areas like San Juan county in Utah. Dilg explained that the Utah state legislature recently approved another $10 million in grant funding for last-mile broadband projects to the home for unserved areas, a first for the state to appropriate such funding. Many other states are working on similar projects.

Tribal Broadband

Tribal Ready COO Adam Geisler Addresses Importance of Data Sovereignty to Tribes

The federal government has failed to uphold its trust responsibility to provide health, safety and welfare to Native American tribes.



Photo of Tribal Ready President and COO Adam Geisler speaking in January 2022

WASHINGTON, November 20, 2023 – A tribal broadband leader said Friday the federal government has failed to uphold its trust responsibility to provide health, safety and welfare to Native American tribes, speaking at an event in the broadband community on Friday.

The leader, Adam Geisler, president and chief operating officer of Tribal Ready, said that the digital divide persisted on tribal lands partly because federal agencies and internet providers haven’t met funding and deployment obligations.

In the “Ask Me Anything” event, Geisler, a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, discussed his journey from being tribal leader to a division chief for tribal broadband connectivity at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and eventually to his role at Tribal Ready.

Geisler emphasized the importance of understanding tribal sovereignty, which he described as the ability of tribes to govern their people, lands, and processes. He highlighted the unique political standing of tribes in the United States and their relationship with the federal government.

One critical aspect of this is the importance of tribal data sovereignty, which involves control over the collection, access, and use of data related to tribes.

In addition to the federal government’s failure to uphold its trust responsibilities, industry broadband has had shortcomings despite being subsidized. Federal funding alone will not close the digital divide without policy and statute revisions for flexibility and practical application, he said.

Geisler also touched on the successful allocation of the 2.5 GigaHertz (GHz) band of spectrum to tribes, viewing it as a step in the right direction but insufficient in fully addressing connectivity needs.

He advocated for a mixed-technology approach to broadband solutions, recognizing that different technologies like fiber, wireless, and satellite can complement each other to provide comprehensive coverage.

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Broadband's Impact

New Senate Bill Would Tap Broadband and Tech Companies for USF Funds

The fund spends $8 billion annually to subsidize networks.



Screenshot of Sen. Markwayen Mullin, R-O.K., at a Senate hearing on October 26.

WASHINGTON, November 17, 2023 – Three senators proposed a bill on Thursday that would tap broadband providers and tech companies to contribute to a major internet subsidy.

The Universal Service Fund is a roughly $8 billion annual broadband subsidy for low-income households, schools, libraries, and healthcare providers. It’s funded by fees on voice service providers, leading to talks of reform as voice revenues decline and broadband adoption increases.

The Federal Communications Commission administers the fund, but has left it to Congress to change the USF’s contribution base, citing doubts about the agency’s legal authority to make that change on its own.

A Senate working group, which does not include the senators who proposed the new legislation, has been evaluating potential reforms to the fund since May.  

Commenters to that working group largely supported fees on broadband providers as a more sustainable long-term solution for the fund. A more contentious point has been whether or not to call on some tech companies to contribute as well.

The argument is that tech companies which operate largely online, like Google and Amazon, should pay into the USF because they benefit so directly from more people being able to access broadband. 

Tech companies have opposed the proposition, saying broadband companies are a more stable source of funding. FCC Commissioner Brendam Carr and broadband companies publicly support the idea.

So does the bill proposed on Thursday. It would direct the FCC to expand the USF contribution base to both broadband and online tech companies, known as “edge providers.” Those edge providers would be limited to companies responsible for more than 3% of the country’s internet traffic and with more than $5 billion in annual revenue.

Multiple broadband industry groups came out in support of the legislation, including USTelecom, which represents major providers like AT&T and Lumen, and two rural broadband coalitions.

Conservative groups are also challenging the USF in court. The right-wing nonprofit Consumers’ Research and other organizations currently have four pending suits alleging the fund is unconstitutional.

They argue Congress gave the FCC unfettered authority to collect a tax by establishing the fund in 1996, and that the FCC abused that authority by delegating USF management to a nonprofit under the commission’s control.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reheard one such case with a full panel of judges on September 19 and has yet to issue a ruling. The Sixth Circuit struck down a petition from the group in May, while the Eleventh and D.C. circuits also have yet to issue rulings. 

Senators Markwayne Mullin, R-O.K., Mark Kelly, D-A.Z., and Mike Crapo, R-I.D., proposed the bill. Kelly, along with Senate working group leader Ben Luján, D-N.M., reintroduced another bill in March that would also direct the FCC to research the feasibility of tapping big tech for funds.

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Expert Opinion

Ryan Johnston: What Happens to BEAD Without the Affordable Connectivity Program?

We’d be building broadband to no one without the ACP. The ACP extends every BEAD dollar further.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Ryan Johnston, senior policy counsel at Next Century Cities

Congress dedicated more than $42 billion to help states and companies build out broadband networks to all Americans. This program, called the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, marked a crucial step towards bridging the digital divide in our nation. But this program will fail if Congress doesn’t renew the Affordable Connectivity Program that states are relying on to connect low-income Americans.

Bipartisan legislation from Congress made it clear that states needed to offer a low-cost broadband plan to residents to qualify for BEAD funding. For the uninitiated, the ACP is a $30-a-month subsidy that an eligible consumer can use towards any broadband plan a participating service provider offers.

In fact, many providers have started offering broadband plans at a $30 price point so the effective cost of broadband to the consumer is zero. Using ACP is an easy way for ISPs to meet the affordability requirement, a “short-hand” of sorts for them to offer affordable plans using an existing — and successful — model.

However, the ACP is expected to exhaust its funding in the first half of next year, leaving a potentially disastrous scenario for families who may have little savings or discretionary income. Ultimately allowing the ACP to end leaves a crucial question unanswered: what good are networks if people cannot afford to connect to them?

During a congressional oversight hearing in May, National Telecommunications and Information Agency Administrator Alan Davidson explained to Members of Congress that the BEAD program will be negatively impacted if continued funding for the ACP is not found. He emphasized that for low-income rural Americans, the ACP is the lifeline ensuring they can afford to access the internet. Without it, some providers may hesitate to deploy in rural areas over fear that the investment will be sustainable. Subscribership concerns may prove to be a limiting factor on which rural areas are served.

The ACP extends every BEAD dollar further. A study conducted by Common Sense Media found that the ACP could reduce the BEAD subsidy needed to incentivize providers to build in rural areas by up to 25% per year. According to the study, ACP reduces the per-household subsidy required to incentivize ISP investment by $500. Simply put, ACP improves the economic case because it 1) effectively lowers the cost of service, 2) creates a customer base with less churn, and 3) makes subscribers easier to acquire because of the massive public and private investment in raising awareness for the program.

But if the ACP is allowed to end, the federal government could end up overspending on every broadband deployment made through BEAD. This ultimately means BEAD networks will fail to connect millions of Americans.

The ACP is more than a simple affordability program; for over 21 million households; it’s a gateway to our ever-increasing digital society. Without it, millions of Americans will be unable to see doctors, visit with family, shop, and engage with their communities online. At the same time, the ACP plays a significant role in future infrastructure deployment. Allowing the ACP to end all but ensures that millions will be disconnected and future funding dollars won’t go the distance to close the digital divide.

Ryan Johnston is senior policy counsel at Next Century Cities. He is responsible for NCC’s federal policy portfolio, building and maintaining relationships with Federal Commissions Commission officials, members of Congress and staff, and public interest allies. Working with various federal agencies, Ryan submits filings on behalf of NCC members on technology and telecommunications related issues that impact the digital divide such as broadband data mapping, benchmark speeds, spectrum policy, content moderation, privacy, and others. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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