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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?

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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.

Rural

USDA Considering Drawing on Infrastructure Bill Money as ReConnect Demand Increases

The USDA has been allocated $2 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

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Screenshot of Christopher McLean and Drew Clark at Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2022 – The acting administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service said Wednesday that his office has seen so much interest in the third round for its broadband funds that it is considering drawing on other federal infrastructure funds to satisfy demand.  

Christopher McLean, who joined Broadband Breakfast for its weekly event Wednesday, said the latest round for money from the ReConnect program received 305 applications requesting a total of $4.8 billion, but the program allocated only $1.15 billion for the round.   

McLean said that while his office is currently evaluating the applications, it is also now considering drawing on the $2 billion the office was allocated under the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act to meet the demand for builds intended to connect the underserved. 

“We made an announcement that because as more funds had become available, we would reserve the right to apply additional funds to that $1.15 billion funding pool. We got far more applications than we had dollars in that initial allotment,” said McLean.

Photo of Christopher McLean and Drew Clark at Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

McLean added that the USDA is expecting to announce winners for the third round this summer and is preparing to announce an additional fourth round.

In a keynote speech in Fiber Connect 2020, Chad Rupe, administrator for the RUS said that “the USDA’s RUS offers one of the cheapest, most reliable sources of capital.” 

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can also join LIVE ONLINE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Zoom.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022, 12 Noon ET — Preparing for Federal Broadband Funding with the Rural Utilities Service’s Christopher McLean

Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark will host Christopher McLean, Acting Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service  for a fireside chat about broadband funding, including the ReConnect program, RUS’s long-standing mandate to improve rural telecommunications, electric and broadband infrastructure, and the way other federal programs will interact with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Guests for this Broadband Breakfast for Lunch session:

  • Christopher McLean, Acting Administrator, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service
  • Drew Clark (host), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

In addition to serving as the Acting Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, Christopher McLean also serves as the Assistant Administrator for Electric Programs at the RUS. He was named to that position on January 11, 2015. This is Chris’ third time at the agency. As AAE, Chris presides over a $46 billion loan portfolio. In recent years the RUS annual lending budget has been in excess of $5 billion. The agency makes low interest loans for rural electric infrastructure, renewable energy, smart grid and energy efficiency. Prior to his return to RUS, Chris was the Acting Director of the Program Planning and Accountability Division of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture. He came to OASCR in 2013 as civil rights fellow in the Policy Office. From 2010-2012, Chris served as a senior advisor to the Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service. Chris was in private practice from 2001-2010. He was the co-owner of e-Copernicus, a consulting firm that specialized in telecommunications, transportation and technology policy. Chris is also the former Executive Director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition. He is also is a former RUS Administrator and former Governor of the Rural Telephone Bank. He was appointed Deputy Administrator in January 1998. In 2000, he was the first person nominated and confirmed for the position of RUS Administrator. He hails from Omaha, Nebraska. He received an LL.M. in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University in 1985, a J.D. from Creighton University School of Law in 1982, and a degree in Business Administration from Creighton University in 1980.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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Local Governments Provide Valuable Information for Rural Infrastructure Builds

Rural communities vary in broadband needs, making community engagement essential for breaching the digital divide.

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Photo of Scott Woods, Josh Seidemann, Jerry Kuthy and Bob Knight (left to right) by Teralyn Whippe

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2022 – A critical first step to delivering on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for rural communities at a local level is community engagement and understanding, panelists said at a Tuesday event of the Local Initiative Support Corporation.

As a local leader in a rural community “the first thing to do is a community survey,” said Josh Seidemann, vice president of policy at NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association.

Seidemann and other panelists provided advice on what local communities need to do to be successful in applications under the IIJA. The process is expected to kick off upon release of rules from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The agency must release rules under the IIJA by May 16.

A community survey will help “determine and evaluate where your community needs broadband the most,” said Seidemann. Such a survey is “going to inform and illuminate the type of network that will best meet your needs.”

Community needs can vary due to topography and existing infrastructure available for use. “Make sure your network meets your community needs,” added Bob Knight, CEO of public relations agency Harrison Edwards and a local government official in Connecticut. He is co-chair of Fiber Broadband Association’s public officials group. “The best projects have an element of community engagement.”

Jerry Kuthy, Program Officer at Cameron Foundation, urged local leaders to create a mapping system of their individual geographical broadband needs.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development launched an interactive broadband coverage map in April of 2022. Kuthy said the map will help local leaders in Virginia roll out funding for rural broadband infrastructure.

Mapping areas of focus for broadband projects has long been the focus for state and regional leaders, in part because so many people have expressed disappointment at previous FCC broadband mapping efforts.

LISC is an intermediary non-profit that connects public and private resources with underinvested places. The role of Community Development Financial Institutions was also discussed at the event.

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Community Development Financial Institutions Funds Prepare for Broadband Infrastructure Funding

CDFI funds are responsible for rural Wyoming broadband and may offer a solution to rural areas across the nation.

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Photo of Brian Vo

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2022 – A Treasury Department program that is bringing capital to disadvantaged communities is helping drive key money into broadband infrastructure builds in rural America, some of those recipient institutions said at an event Tuesday.

The department provides grants to and certifies institutions such as banks, credit unions, loan funds, microloan funds, or venture capital providers as Community Development Financial Institutions that provide financial services in low-income communities and to people who don’t have access to financing, according to the government website.

The program is also helping build much-needed broadband connectivity, as seen in rural Wyoming, where the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation has already utilized CDFI funds to finance a project to run fiber optics networks to rural Wyoming.

“We believe that there’s capital available for rural broadband,” Gary Franke, managing director of the communications group at CoBank, said at the Local Initiative Support Corporation event on Tuesday.

LISC is an intermediary non-profit that connects public and private resources with underinvested places. CoBank, however, is not a CDFI.

Such deals “typically will involve partnerships with state, local, or federal programs in addition to private equity,” he said.

Suzanne Anarde, CEO at Rural Community Assistance Corporation, a CDFI, said Tuesday that CDFIs must “find out what our individual niche is and how we can build capacity that makes us viable.”

Brian Vo, chief investment officer at Connect Humanity said that his organization could work with CDFIs in the future to fund their holistic approach to digital equity.

Photo of Brian Vo (right) by Teralyn Whipple

LISC alleges that the large national financial institutions are not interested in making investments to improve rural broadband expansion across the country. The organization states on its web site that “rural broadband is lacking in many areas because the large national providers are not interested in making the investment.”

“We see a lot of opportunity out there. With the right capital and the right funding programs, there’s a lot more to come,” Franke said.

There are currently more than 1,200 CDFI funds operating across the nation, many of which are now focusing on crossing the digital divide by providing funds for rural broadband infrastructure.

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