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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.

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12 Days of Broadband

How Long Will it Take Congress to Revamp the Universal Service Fund?

Critics urged the FCC to expand the fund’s contribution sources, but the agency chose to punt the decision to Congress.

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Graphic courtesy of Dmitry Kovalchuk / Adobe Stock

From the 12 Days of Broadband:

The Federal Communications Commission this summer waived away the issue of revamping the Universal Service Fund, pointing to the need for Congress to give it the authority to make changes to the multi-billion-dollar fund that goes to support basic telecommunications services to low-income Americans and rural communities. 

Up to this point, the agency had a virtual megaphone to its ear with critics saying that it needs to make the changes necessitated by the fact that the nearly $9-billion fund this quarter is supported only by dwindling legacy voice service revenues as more Americans move over to broadband-driven communications services. 

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Expert Opinion

Bjorn Capens: Strong Appetite for Rural Broadband Calls for Next Generation Fiber Technology

The first operator to bring fiber to a community creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Björn Capens, Nokia Fixed Networks European Vice President

In July, the Biden-Harris administration announced another $401 million in funding for high-speed Internet access in rural America. This was just the latest in a string of government initiatives aimed at helping close the US digital divide.

These initiatives have been essential for encouraging traditional broadband providers, communities and utility companies to deploy fiber to rural communities, with governments cognizant of the vital role broadband connectivity has in sustaining communities and improving socio-economic opportunities for citizens. 

Yet there is still work to do, even in countries with the most advanced connectivity options. For example, fixed broadband is missing from almost 30 percent of rural American homes, according to Pew Research. It’s similar in Europe where a recent European Commission’s Digital Divide report found that roughly 18 percent of rural citizens can only get broadband speeds of a maximum 30 Mb, a speed which struggles to cope with modern digital behaviors. 

Appetite for high-speed broadband in rural areas is strong

There’s no denying the appetite for high-speed broadband in rural areas. The permanent increase in working from home and the rise of modern agricultural and Industry 4.0 applications mean that there’s an increasingly attractive business case for rural fiber deployments – as the first operator to bring fiber to a community creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors. 

The first consideration, then, for a new rural fiber deployment is which passive optical network technology to use. Gigabit PON seems like an obvious first choice, being a mature and widely deployed technology. 

However, GPON services are a standard offering for nearly every fiber broadband operator. As PON is a shared medium with usually up to 30 users each taking a slice, it’s easy to see how a few Gigabit customers can quickly max out the network, and with the ever-increasing need for speed, it’s widely held that GPON will not be sufficient by about 2025. 

XGS-PON is an already mature technology

The alternative is to use XGS-PON, a more recent, but already mature, flavor of PON with a capacity of 10 Gigabits per second. With the greater capacity, broadband operators can generate higher revenues with more premium-tier residential services as well as lucrative business services. There’s even room for additional services to run alongside business and residential broadband. For example, the same network can carry traffic from four G and five G cells, known as mobile backhaul. That’s either a new revenue opportunity or a cost saving if the operator also runs a mobile network. 

This convergence of different services onto a single PON fiber network is starting to take off, with fiber-to-the-home networks evolving into fiber for everything, where homes, businesses, industries, smart cities, mobile cells and more are all running on the same infrastructure. This makes the business case even stronger. 

Whether choosing GPON or XGS-PON, the biggest cost contributor is the same for both: deploying fiber outside the plant. Therefore, the increased cost of XGS-PON over GPON is far outweighed by the capacity increase it brings, making XGS-PON the clear choice for a brand-new fiber deployment. XGS-PON protects this investment for longer as its higher capacity makes it harder for new entrants to offer a superior service. 

It also doesn’t need to be upgraded for many years, and when it comes to the business case for fiber, it pays to take a long-term view. Fiber optic cable has a shelf-life of 75 or more years, and even as one increases the speeds running on fiber, that cable can remain the same.  

Notwithstanding these arguments, fiber still comes at a cost, and operators need to carefully manage those costs in order to maximize returns. 

Recent advances in fiber technology allow operators to take a pragmatic approach to their rollouts. In the past, each port on a PON server blade could only deliver one technology. But Multi-PON has multiple modes: only GPON, only XGS-PON or both together. It even has a forward-looking 25G PON mode. 

This allows an operator to easily boost speeds as needed with minimal effort and additional investment. GPON could be the starting point for fiber-to-the-home services, XGS-PON could be added for business services, or even a move to 25G PON for a cluster of rural power users, like factories and modern warehouses – creating a seamless, future-proof upgrade path for operators. 

The decision not to invest in fiber presents a substantial business risk

Alternatively, there’s always the option for a broadband operator to stick with basic broadband in rural areas and not invest in fiber. But that actually presents a business risk, as any competitor that decides to deploy fiber will inevitably carve out a chunk of the customer base for themselves. 

Besides, most operators are not purely profit-driven; they too recognize that prolonging the current situation in underserved communities is not great. High-speed broadband makes areas more attractive for businesses, creating more jobs and stemming population flows from rural to urban centers. 

But rural broadband not only improves lives, but it also decreases the world’s carbon emissions both directly, compared to alternative broadband technologies, and indirectly by enabling online and remote activities that would otherwise involve transportation. These social and economic benefits of fiber are highly regarded by investors and stockholders who have corporate social responsibility high on their agendas. 

With the uber-connected urban world able to adopt every new wave of bandwidth-hungry application – think virtual reality headsets and the metaverse – rural communities are actually going backwards in comparison. The way forward is fiber and XGS-PON. 

Björn Capens is Nokia Fixed Networks European Vice President. Since 2017, Capens has been leading Nokia’s fixed networks business, headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fixed broadband access industry and holds a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering, Telecommunications, from KU Leuven. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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

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Expert Opinion

Johnny Kampis: Federal Bureaucracy an Impediment to Broadband on Tribal Lands

18% of people living on Tribal lands lack broadband access, compared to 4% of residents in non-tribal areas.

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The author of this expert Opinion is Johnny Kampis, director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance

A new study from the Phoenix Center finds that as the federal government pours tens of billions of dollars into shrinking the digital divide in tribal areas, much of that gap has already been eliminated.

The report, and a second from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, are more indications that regulations and economic factors that include income levels continue to hamper efforts to get broadband to all Americans.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocated $45 billion toward tribal lands. This was done as part of a massive effort by the federal government to extend broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas of the United States.

George Ford, chief economist at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, wrote in the recent policy bulletin that while there is still plenty of work needed to be done in terms of connectivity, efforts in recent years have largely eliminated the broadband gap between tribal and non-tribal areas.

Ford examined broadband deployment around the U.S. between 2014 and 2020 using Form 477 data from the Federal Communications Commission, comparing tribal and non-tribal census tracts.

Ford points out in the bulletin that the FCC has observed several challenges for broadband deployment in tribal areas, including rugged terrain, complex permitting processes, jurisdictional issues, a higher ratio of residences to business customers, higher poverty rates, and cultural and language barriers.

Ford controlled for some of these differences in his study comparing tribal and non-tribal areas. He reports in the bulletin that the statistics suggest nearly equal treatment in high-speed internet development.

Encouraging results about availability of broadband in Tribal areas

“These results are encouraging, suggesting that broadband availability in Tribal areas is becoming closer or equal to non-Tribal areas over time, and that any broadband gap is largely the result of economic characteristics and not the disparate treatment of Tribal areas,” Ford wrote.

But he also notes that unconditioned differences show a 10-percentage point spread in availability in tribal areas, which indicates how much poverty, low population density, and red tape is harming the efforts to close the digital divide there.

“These results do not imply that broadband is ubiquitous in either Tribal or non-Tribal areas; instead, these results simply demonstrate that the difference in availability between Tribal and non-Tribal areas is shrinking and that this difference is mostly explained by a few demographic characteristics,” Ford wrote.

In a recent report, the GAO suggests that part of the problem lies with the federal bureaucracy – that “tribes have struggled to identify which federal program meets their needs and have had difficulty navigating complex application processes.”

GAO states that 18 percent of people living on tribal lands lack broadband access, compared to 4 percent of residents in non-tribal areas.

The GAO recommended that the Executive Office of the President specifically address tribal needs within a national broadband strategy and that the Department of Commerce create a framework within the American Broadband Initiative for addressing tribal issues.

“The Executive Office of the President did not agree or disagree with our recommendation but highlighted the importance of tribal engagement in developing a strategy,” the report notes.

That goes together with the GAO’s dig at the overall lack of a national broadband strategy by the Biden Administration in a June report. As the Taxpayers Protection Alliance reported, the federal auditor noted that 15 federal agencies administer more than 100 different broadband funding programs, and that despite a taxpayer investment of $44 billion from 2015 through 2020, “millions of Americans still lack broadband, and communities with limited resources may be most affected by fragmentation.”

President Biden has set a goal for universal broadband access in the U.S. by 2030. These recent reports show that the federal bureaucracy under his watch needs to do a better job of getting out of its own way.

Johnny Kampis is the director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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

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