Legislature approves $3.9 million to extend Wi-Fi for remote students

A $3.9 million dollar project to increase wireless internet accessibility (Wi-Fi) for students in the River Region of the San Juan School District (SJSD) will be paid by the State of Utah.

In the August 20 special session of the Utah State Legislature, the legislative bodies passed HB6002 Supplemental Budget Balancing and Coronavirus Relief Appropriations.

As part of the relief appropriations, the state legislature set aside the $3.9 million to fund the Wi-Fi project in the south portion of the county.

The project includes Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley, Navajo Mountain, White Mesa, and Bluff.

Senator David Hinkins and Representative Phil Lyman, who represent San Juan County in the state legislature, voted for HB6002.

The project will extend local area networks to provide filtered, low-speed internet to the communities surrounding local schools.

The program would install radio receivers in homes that could pick up signals at a distance from towers on or near SJSD schools.

A bid for the project came in at $3.95 million for installation. Yearly maintenance would cost between $172,000 and $345,000 a year, depending on the level of service.

While the district has not budgeted funds for the project, they were able to secure the funding for the installation through the state legislature.

SJSD Education Technology Director Aaron Brewer says the district is currently seeking funds for the service contract for upkeep and maintenance.

When COVID-19 shut down schools in the district through the end of the year, the district faced a serious challenge because most homes in the River Region do not have Wi-Fi.

That challenge has been extended into the 2020-2021 academic year with all schools south of Blanding in the district remaining in remote learning for the start of the school year.

Solutions at the end of the last school year included purchasing Wi-Fi hotspots that used cellular connectivity to provide Wi-Fi. Brewer said those units don’t have enough bandwidth to support multiple users in a household.

The district also used an increased Wi-Fi network to allow students to drive to school parking lots to download assignments onto laptops that they could then complete at home and return to the school lots to upload their finished work. Challenges exist with this model as well.

The district was approached by Solectek, a broadband wireless company based out of San Diego. Solectek came with the idea to make a large Local Area Network (LAN) to service the River Region of the district.

The district asked for bids on the project and received two, with Solectek securing the winning bid.

The program will install radios in homes that communicate with towers built on top of schools in the district.

The LAN is not an open network and would be filtered back through the school, limiting the websites that are accessible on the network.

The project is already underway as Brewer says Solectek is completing the engineering portion of the project currently, and the school district has ordered radios. He adds the towers could start being set up as early as next week depending on the process of programming.

Students’ homes will have their own receivers mounted and a cable run into the house for access.

The district says they want to keep speeds below 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.

That threshold is low enough that an internet provider could still qualify for a Community Connects Grant. The grant helps private internet companies to provide internet in rural areas of the US.

The district says they plan to keep the speeds low enough that there is still incentive for faster internet to come to the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

Currently a fiber project that would bring internet connectivity into towns south of Blanding is under construction. The project is currently waiting on finalizing right-of-way agreements with the Ute Mountain tribe through White Mesa.

San Juan Record

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