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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

High Speed Internet Is Coming To Schools And Libraries In Southern San Juan County

A heavy machine holding a spool of orange cable drives along the highway behind a tractor.
Kate Groetzinger
Emery Telcom crews are laying fiber south of Bluff, Utah, after receiving permission to lay the line through White Mesa in late August 2020.

A project to bring broadband to southern San Juan County will move forward, after receiving permits from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe last month. The much-anticipated project will bring faster internet to schools, clinics and libraries in Bluff, Montezuma Creek and White Mesa using underground fiber optics lines.

The Utah Education and Telehealth Network spearheaded the project in 2018 to ensure that schools in southern San Juan County don’t run out of internet bandwidth, according to the Network’s Associate Director Jeff Egly. The UETN currently provides internet to the schools through a microwave radio system, but that system has reached full capacity with the uptick in online learning in recent years.

“With fiber, when you need more bandwidth you can just add it,” Egly said. “It’s very scalable, where it's very finite with radio.”

The project has two phases. The first will bring fiber optic lines down from Blanding to connect locations in White Mesa, Bluff, and Montezuma Creek. The second phase will bring the lines down through Mexican Hat, Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain.

Emery Telcom, a nonprofit telecommunications company based in Orangeville, Utah, received a contract through the UETN to build the first phase of the project, which will cost $3.4 million. It is primarily funded through a Federal Communications Commission program called the Universal Service Schools & Libraries, or E-rate, Program.

The E-rate Program is funded through a tax paid by telephone and internet customers, and is meant to expand broadband to rural and low-income areas.

The Network, Utah Navajo Trust Fund, Utah Navajo Health System and Utah Department of Transportation contributed $1 million in matching funds to complete the first phase of the project. The second phase of the project will be paid for through federal grants as well as a $1 million appropriation from the Utah Legislature.

A map of the google fiber line.
Renee Bright
The blue line follows existing highways and shows where the fiber will be laid down. Connections to schools in Bluff and Montezuma Creek should be completed by October 2020.

The first phase of the project is moving forward after a major permitting delay in White Mesa — the Ute Mountain Ute community between Blanding and Bluff. Emery Telcom has been seeking permits from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe since March 2018, according to CEO Brock Johansen.

The process was complicated by the fact that the tribal land in White Mesa is split into allotments, which are assigned to tribal members, and 50% of the allottees had to sign off on the project in order for Emery Telcom to receive a right-of-way permit to lay fiber along the side of the highway in White Mesa.

Griselda Rogers is the director of the White Mesa Education Center, which contains a library and kindergarten. She helped collect signatures and rally support for the project.

“We’re hoping that having fiber optic will open doors for community members who don’t want to leave the reservation to go to work,” Rogers said.

The first phase of the project should be completed by the end of October, and will tie into a project underway within the San Juan School District to connect Navajo students’ homes to the internet. The second phase will be completed before June 2022, if there are no new delays.

While Emery Telcom is only connecting the fiber to schools and libraries as part of this project, other internet service providers, like Frontier Communications or the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, can pay Emery to hook into the fiber and then connect individual homes to the internet.

Cell towers will also receive a boost from the fiber, according to Johansen, who said cell service providers in Bluff, Aneth and Monument Valley have already asked Emery about extending the fiber to their towers. Connecting to broadband through the fiber optic line would allow those towers to provide 5G and LTE cell service.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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