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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

Ligado and Competitive Carriers Association Talk Unlocking Broadband Coverage at Lunch Event

Broadband Breakfast, in person and for lunch, heard about the possibilities with spectrum sharing and combining technologies for coverage.

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Left to right: Steven Berry, Doug Smith, Drew Clark

WASHINGTON, September 9, 2021—Doug Smith, president and CEO of Ligado Networks, said at Broadband Breakfast’s first in-person lunch event Wednesday that a combination of satellite and on-the-ground technologies will prove to improve connectivity for all Americans.

Smith said the ubiquitous coverage of satellites seamlessly coupled with the speed and penetrative capabilities of terrestrial networks thanks to 5G technology is where broad connectivity is unlocked.

Ligado, a satellite and technology company, has fostered close relationships with companies like Mavenir and Nokia to see these visions realized and allow more people around the country to access broadband and cellular services no matter where they are in the country. In 2020, Ligado received unanimous approval from the FCC to launch spectrum sharing operations in the L band, despite fierce push-back from the Department of Defense.

The question of providing better service to rural consumers is of particular importance to the Competitive Carriers Association, whose President and CEO Steven Berry also joined Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark for lunch.

Though they are not the largest advocate in the telecom sector, they provide rural carriers with a voice in areas that are economically difficult to serve. “Many of our members try and effectively serve rural areas that either no one else tried to attempt, or they are the most difficult areas in the United States,” Berry said. “That is why we have always had an appreciation for Ligado.”

Berry explained how historically, Ligado promoted a wholesale model that was designed to work with small carriers. He went further, explaining that for many regions, internet connectivity does not make economic sense, and that business models are often unsustainable due to the often sparsely populated and difficult terrain.

Ligado’s model allowed these companies, he said, to enhance their coverage, backhaul, and overall cost effectiveness. “We are of the opinion that every tool in the tool has to be utilized and each situation is unique,” Berry said.

“Each carrier that tries to service those unique areas is also unique—the possibilities to team with Ligado [puts small carriers in a great position to pull that off].”

The push for ubiquitous 5G

Whether it is improving coverage through expanding into more bands or creating handheld devices capable of utilizing satellite and terrestrial technologies, Ligado pushing to unlock the true capabilities of 5G technologies.

In the past couple years, Ligado has focused its efforts on bringing 5G to the forefront of its services. “This is the transition of a generation of technology that is not like anything we have seen before,” Smith said.

“This is not like 2G to 3G, or even 3G to 4G.” He described Ligado’s role, which he believes is to support the U.S.’s critical infrastructure in industries like energy, transportation, and manufacturing. He stated that operating in bands such as the L band is critical for Ligado to fulfill this role.

“Our vision is to bring the power of a 5G commercial network to bear on private industries.”

Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Broadband Breakfast for Lunch takes place at 11:30 a.m. on the second Wednesday of every month at Clyde’s of Gallery Place, 707 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20006. You can watch the September 8, 2021, on this page, or sign up for the current Live Online event.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021, 12 Noon ET — A Conversation with Ligado President and CEO Doug Smith and Competitive Carriers Association President and CEO Steven K. Berry

Deployment of 5G and next-generation technologies promises tremendous opportunities for consumers across the country, particularly in rural areas. It means major advancements for American businesses, too – especially in energy and manufacturing that are seeking to modernize and digitize their operations.

With the Federal Communications Commission’s unanimous approval, in April 2020, of Ligado Networks’ application to facilitate 5G and Internet of Things services, Ligado has been a company on the move. It has recently announced business deals with Mavenir, Nokia, Rakuten and Saankhya Labs. And, Ligado says, its mobile network offerings for critical infrastructure provides another option for entities in need of 5G services. Join Ligado President and CEO Doug Smith and Competitive Carriers Association President and CEO Steven K. Berry, in conversation with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, for this special Broadband Breakfast Club for Lunch event.

Panelists:

  • Doug Smith, President and CEO, Ligado Networks
  • Steven K. Berry, President and CEO, Competitive Carriers Association
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

  • Doug Smith is President and CEO of Ligado Networks and is responsible for directing the vision of the company and managing every aspect of its day-to-day operations. He leads efforts to utilize its state-of-the-art communications assets in operating a network solutions firm designed to extend coverage, increase capacity, and accelerate the delivery of next-generation technology for America’s wireless and critical infrastructure industries. With more than 25 years of domestic and international telecom and wireless industry experience, Doug has engineered, built, and launched nationwide networks for GTE, Nextel, Sprint Nextel, and Clearwire.
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, also serves as Of Counsel to The CommLaw Group. He has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers negotiate telecom leases and fiber IRUs, litigate to operate in the public right of way, and argue regulatory classifications before federal and state authorities. In addition to representing public and private providers on broadband issues, Drew is actively involved in issues surrounding interconnected Voice-over-Internet-Protocol service, spectrum licenses, robocalling including STIR/SHAKEN, and the provision of video franchises and “over-the-top” copyrighted content.
  • Steven K. Berry is President and CEO of Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) the nation’s leading association for competitive wireless providers serving rural, regional and nationwide markets in the United States. A seasoned lawyer who worked for Congress (House and Senate), the Executive Branch and as a partner at Holland & Knight law firm, Berry has held positions as the Senior Vice President of Government Relations for three associations, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the CTIA-The Wireless Association, and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA).

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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Broadband Mapping & Data

How Five States Tackled Broadband Expansion During the Pandemic

Broadband Breakfast revisits what some state legislatures did to narrow broadband gaps.

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North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper

August 31, 2021–The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the existing digital divide that exists across the country.

Both on the state and federal levels, lawmakers have come together in acts of bipartisanship to pass legislation with historic levels of funding and resources to improve digital literacy, narrow the “homework gap”, and build affordable broadband infrastructure in locations often overlooked in the past.

In fact, some states have passed legislation during the pandemic to approve a broadband office, bringing all 50 states to have created either a task force, commission, or authority to coordinate broadband expansion.

As the country awaits the House’s return in September, on which it will decide what it will do with the $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill, Broadband Breakfast looks back at what five states have done to bridge the digital divide.

Ohio

In June, the House proposed a $190 million budget granted toward expanding residential broadband across the state of Ohio.

In the spring, the state took steps to connect the more hard-to-reach homes by providing $20 million for the new Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program, known as H.B. 2. The allocated money funded projects that providers consider unjustifiable from a business perspective.

This summers’ House version of the budget included another $190 million, but Senate Republicans excluded that funding in their proposal. The final budget agreement “axed a proposal to limit local governments from offering broadband services,” the Columbus Dispatch wrote.

In June, during deliberations over the budget, the Ohio Senate approved a version with language that would have forced existing municipal broadband services to shut down and prevented the formation of new public networks.

Under that language, many of the municipal broadband programs in cities such as Fairlawn, Hudson, Medina, and Wadsworth would not be allowed to operate if a private-sector company operate in the area. This could have been damaging to municipalities from being able to accept federal funding for the purpose of starting a broadband program.

Under H.B. 110, the state budget bill was signed into law by Governor Mike Dewine on June 30, and took effect on July 1. The final version of the bill determined that the residential broadband expansion grant program will receive a total of $250 million: $210 million in fiscal 2022 and $30 million in fiscal 2023. The final language in the budget bill also stripped out the Senate’s proposed limits on existing and future municipal networks.

North Carolina

In mid-May, the North Carolina House of Representatives unanimously approved a $750 million broadband expansion fund known as House Bill 947, just days after Governor Roy Cooper announced $1.2 billion in federal relief dedicated to closing the state’s digital divide.

The governor has said broadband access is a priority for his administration and announced in July the creation of a new office of Digital Equity and Literacy, a first for North Carolina and the first in the nation. This program is part of the newly created Division of Broadband and Digital Equity within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT), to spearhead Cooper’s plan in American Rescue Plan funds to close the digital divide in the state by 2025.

HB 947, also known as the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology — or G.R.E.A.T. Broadband Expansion Act — appropriates $350 million from the state’s fiscal recovery fund to the existing G.R.E.A.T. program, which was established in 2018 to fund broadband infrastructure construction. The bill also clarifies that $400 million will be set aside from federal stimulus funding in a future bill to create another grant program, called the Completing Access to Broadband Grant program.

Texas

Governor Greg Abbott said broadband access is one of his priority items for the Texas’ legislative session this year.

On July 13th, the Governor signed House Bill 5, which aims to provide and an expansion of broadband services to certain areas. A large portion of the Texas Broadband Bill includes the creation of a broadband development office. This was one of the few pieces of legislation that passed with strong bipartisan support in the highly partisan legislature. The bill received unanimous legislative committee support from the beginning.

Co-author of the bill and Republican Representative Hugh Shine said in an announcement in March: “I don’t think the ‘work-from-home’ mentality is going away as the pandemic comes to an end. Businesses no longer have to relocate to a major city, and employees don’t have to work in an office for many businesses. It is important for our economy across Texas that we have access.”

The new broadband development office plans to provide a comprehensive solution to broadband access for the lack of connectivity among millions of Texans. The program has announced a mission to providing long-term solutions to complex challenges including educating rural communities in digital literacy, keeping services affordable, and implementing the new 5G standard.

Virginia

Governor Ralph Northam announced in July he wants to spend $700 million of Virginia’s federal relief funding on expanding broadband access to all of Virginia.

The general assembly and Northam have agreed to provide $50 million in 2020 and an additional $50 million in 2021 to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, a public-private partnership to extend broadband service to areas currently without internet providers.

This month, the Virginia General Assembly convened in Richmond for a special session to allocate the federal funding, which was expected to last around two weeks with broadband being a key priority for state senators.

California

In July, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 156 to advance the state’s commitment to bridging the digital divide by increasing equitable, affordable access to high-speed internet service across California.

The $6 billion investment is a part of the comprehensive California Comeback Plan, a plan of recovery following the pandemic, and intends to expand broadband infrastructure and enhance internet access. The funding is divided to conquer the digital divide by giving $3.25 billion to build, operate and maintain an open access and state-owned middle mile network – high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks.

Two billion dollars will be allocated to set up last-mile broadband connections that will connect homes and businesses with local networks. The legislation expedites project deployment and enables Tribes and local governments to access this funding. Lastly, $750 million is allocated toward the state’s new “Loan Loss Reserve” program to bolster the ability of county governments and municipalities to issue broadband bonds to finance their own fiber.

This bill is unlike any other legislation that California has previously passed in its effort to close the divide because it does not include the involvement of private companies such as AT&T, Frontier Communications, Comcast, and Charter.

“This is an essential first step towards reaching near-universal fiber access because it was never ever going to happen through the large private ISPs who are tethered to fast profits and short term investor expectations that prevent them from pursuing universal fiber access. What the state needed was to empower local partners in the communities themselves who will take on the long-term infrastructure challenge,” said Ernesto Falcon, a senior legislative council at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“This broadband package is historic. It transcends politics, and it will be a legacy project that will benefit generations of rural and urban residents alike,” said Newsom in a press release last month. “This legislation will yield vital, broadened access for California families by prioritizing the unserved and underserved areas, facilities, households, and businesses that remain disconnected in the digital era.”

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Rural

Mapping Issues Raised As Major Problem for Connecting Rural Communities, Experts Say

Webinar hears how critical mapping is to bridging the digital divide.

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Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the Rural Assembly at Center for Rural Strategies.

August 23, 2021—A lack of accurate maps, data, and affordable services are slowing the ability for rural areas of the country to get adequate broadband, according to experts following a study on the matter.

Consumer Reports was joined by representatives from the Detroit Community Technology Project, the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, and the Center for Rural Strategies’ Rural Assembly to discuss issues contributing to the digital divide.

“We have a lot of data, which is great,” said Amira Dhalla, associate director for community engagement and operations with Consumer Reports. “But we need a lot more centered around communities and people who have had [inferior broadband service].”

“Broadband is a real gnarly mess,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the Rural Assembly at Center for Rural Strategies.

“It reminds me of a necklace that is all messed up and tangled and we all have to be pulling on it in the right direction,” Coe said. She chalked up most of the of the issues facing rural areas to insufficient mapping and data, and a lack of competition leading to inflated broadband prices.

Multiple efforts, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, have been put toward bridging the digital divide in rural areas across the country, but issues persist. Even when there appears to be ample funding to address the issue, rural communities still seem to lose out, as is the case with RDOF, where auction winners continue to default on their obligations due to inaccurate maps that failed to identify already served regions.

Coe said that while the FCC is responsible for creating broadband maps, she noted that carriers play an outsized role in how data is currently collected. Coe stopped short of accusing the carriers of lying about mapping data, though she pointed to how much power they have in the data sharing dynamic.

“Whatever the FCC says is really a narrative that comes from the providers themselves,” she said. “Maps should really include the customer’s actual experience on the ground.”

Gaps in majority and minority communities

Coe also discussed the disparities in service between majority and minority communities. She stated that 70 percent of Americans only have a choice between one or two ISPs and that rural and tribal subscribers pay up to 37 percent more for broadband than those in more developed areas.

Additionally, according to Rural Assembly data, 38 percent of rural Black Americans do not have access to broadband in their homes. “They are by far one of the most underserved communities in our country,” Coe explained.

Solutions must be catered to specific issues

Coe stated that the Rural Assembly firmly rejects the notion that a “one size fits all” solution can work. “A pot of money does not necessarily address the real problems we face on the ground,” she said. “We really need to focus on rural solution.”

For any solution to be viable, Coe argued that local ownership and investment needs to be a priority, in addition to network neutrality and open access models.

This webinar came hot on the heels of Consumer Report’s “Let’s Broadband Together” initiative—a collaborative effort between Consumer Reports, the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, Public Knowledge, and many other organizations—that surveyed more than 15,000 internet bills from more 30,000 participants to determine the level of service consumers are receiving relative their bill, location, salary, and other features.

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