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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.

Tribal Broadband

Alaska Predicted to Receive a Majority of Tribal Broadband Funds

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held Wednesday hearing exploring broadband investments in Tribal communities.

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Photo of Chairman Manuel Heart courtesy Matt Nager and KSJD Community Radio

WASHINGTON, January 12, 2022 — Alaska’s remoteness might lead the state to receive a majority of federal government funds allotted to broadband for Tribal communities.

“Alaska is going to be one of the highest areas of need,” said Hallie Bissett, executive director of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, speaking at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

As many as 233 of Alaska’s native communities do not have access to broadband at 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downline x 3 Mbps upload service, she said. “That’s unserved, everybody. Unserved. Not underserved.”

The committee’s Wednesday hearing on “Closing the Digital Divide in Native Communities Through Infrastructure Investment” aimed to collect feedback on distribution of Tribal broadband funds.

More money needs to be spent on better broadband access for education in Tribal communities. Manuel Hart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colorado, said, “We’ve had to put in hotspots where parents can bring their students to the parking lot just to access the internet.”

Screenshot of Manuel Hart during the hearing.

Hart said his communities have no access to fiber and need fiber to every home in his community.

Panelists also discussed access to telehealth as the pandemic continues.

William Smith, a veteran and a spokesperson from the National Indian Health Board, said that if the government fiscally bolsters telehealth programs within Tribal communities, residents will be able to save money and access the healthcare they might not otherwise receive.

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FCC

FCC Announces Largest Approval Yet for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: $1 Billion

The agency said Thursday it has approved $1 billion to 69 providers in 32 states.

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Photo illustration from the Pelican Institute

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission announced its largest approval yet from the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, greenlighting on Thursday $1 billion from a reverse auction process that ended with award announcements in December but that the new-look agency has been scrutinizing in recent months.

The agency said in a press release that this fifth round of approvals includes 69 providers who are expected to serve 518,000 locations in 32 states over 10 years. Its previous round approved $700 million worth of applications to cover 26 states. Previous rounds approved $554 million for broadband in 19 states, $311 million in 36 states, and $163 million in 21 states.

The agency still has some way to approve the entirety of the fund, as it’s asked providers that were previously awarded RDOF money in December to revisit their applications to see if the areas they have bid for are not already served. So far, a growing list have defaulted on their respective areas, some saying it was newer FCC maps that showed them what they didn’t previously know. The agency said Thursday that about 5,000 census blocks have been cleared as a result of that process.

The FCC also said Thursday it saved $350 million from winning bidders that have either failed to get state certification or didn’t follow through on their applications. In one winning bidder’s case, the FCC said Thursday Hotwire violated the application rules by changing its ownership structure.

“This latest round of funding will open up even more opportunities to connect hundreds of thousands of Americans to high-speed, reliable broadband service,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.  “Today’s actions reflect the hard work we’ve put in over the past year to ensure that applicants meet their obligations and follow our rules.  With thoughtful oversight, this program can direct funding to areas that need broadband and to providers who are qualified to do the job.”

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Rural

USDA Announces $120 Million in Broadband Infrastructure Loans and Grants

Money comes from the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans and Community Connect programs.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – The Agriculture Department announced Thursday the recipients of $119.7 million in broadband grants and loans.

The money comes from two rural development programs under the department, with the telecom loans program disbursing $71.1 million to four recipients and $48.6 million to 23 recipients from the Community Connect grants program.

Under the Community Connect program, eligible areas are those that do not have access to speeds of at least 10 Megabits per second download and 1 Mbps upload. Eligible criteria under the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans and Loan Guarantees program include rural towns with a population of 5,000 or less without telecommunications networks.

In the press release, the department used the example of how Interior Telephone Company in Alaska will use a $2.6-million grant: to build a 19-mile fiber-to-the-premises network.

The states represented are California, New Mexico, Indiana, Alaska, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.

The grantees are Ponderosa Telephone, Sierra Telephone Company, Mescalero Apache Telecom, Geetingsville Tele Co., Interior Telephone Company, Byte Networking, Sharon Telephone, Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, Wabash Telephone Coop., Jo-Carroll Energy, West Kentucky Rural Telephone Coop Corp., Star Telephone Company, Easton Utilities Commission, Consolidated Telephone Company, Bay Springs Telephone Company Inc., Atlantic Telephone Membership Corp., Star Telephone Membership Corp., NTUA Wireless, Pine Telephone Company, Pine Cellular Phones, Pioneer Telephone Coop., Ben Lomand Communications LLC, iGo Technology Inc., Pembroke Telephone Cooperative, Scott County Telephone Coop., Whidbey Telephone Company, and Public Utility District 1 Lewis County.

“The investments we are announcing today will drive the creation of good-paying union jobs and grow the economy sustainably and equitably so that everyone gets ahead for decades to come,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The chunk of money is part of a larger pie worth $5.2 billion, the rest of which goes to other infrastructure programs including electric, water and environment.

In August, the department announced $167 million to improve broadband infrastructure in 12 states from its ReConnect Program.

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