Network brings school to 500 isolated homes

A newly-installed “local area” computer network will bring new educational opportunities to more than 500 homes in the farthest reaches of the San Juan School District.

A simple ribbon-cutting ceremony in Blanding inaugurated the network on March 8, culminating a nine-month process that officials say could revolutionize education for local school children.

The project will extend the reach of educators far beyond the classroom and into the homes of more than 90 percent of local students on the San Juan County portion of the Navajo Nation.

San Juan School Superintendent Ron Nielson explained the “monumental” educational challenges in the River Region of the school district, which serves students primarily on or near Native American reservations.

Instead of being concentrated in traditional communities, large portions of the student population live in isolated areas that lack many basic amenities, including internet access.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is trying to provide the same level of curriculum access to students across the district,” said Nielson. “As education has evolved to where it is today, the problem has just increased.

“Where some students can be on board because of location, we have been far from being able to reach all kids until this project.This is a game changer; this is monumental.”

The project makes use of approximately 20 large telecommunication towers, many of which were already in place when the project began.

The large towers form the backbone of a system that branches in dozens of directions and eventually delivers school network capabilities to more than 500 isolated homes spread across the reservation.

More than a dozen homes are already online and Nielson estimates that within a few weeks the vast majority of homes will be able to access the system.

Students will be able to access to the school system at home through Chromebook computers provided by the district.

Officials emphasize that students will not have access to the internet but will have access to the school networks.

“We are not in the business of providing internet,” said Acting School District Business Administrator Matt Keyes. “We are in the business of educating kids.”

“Whatever the kids can do [with technology] in the schools, they will be able to do at home,” explained Chris Monson, network administrator for the school district. “In effect, we are not bringing internet to homes, but we are moving the classrooms into the homes.”

Nielson emphasized that the district is not building an infrastructure to compete with private business and added that he looks forward to a time “when affordable high-speed internet is available in all corners of this county.”

Officials from Emery Telcom outlined the steps they are taking to extend telecommunications infrastructure into the area.

Emery Telcom recently extended fiber into the Montezuma Creek and Bluff communities. Crews are ready to extend the fiber to Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain, but they are still waiting for permission from the Navajo Nation.

Emery Telcom estimates it would take “a month or so” to do the work when the permissions come but added that they have been working on the permits for two years.

The need for this project has been particularly obvious during the past year, when the River Region schools have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Teachers are left trying to educate students who are at home without access to technology.

However, the cost to implement a revolutionary project like this is astronomical and would be very difficult for the district.

Superintendent Nielson said the project cost between $4.5 and $5 million and was paid by funds from the State of Utah.

Many of the partners in the project attended the ribbon cutting and field trip, including State School Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, State School Board President Mark Huntsman, officials from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and the Utah Education Technology Network.

Chris Monson, the network administrator for the school district, outlined the “remarkably complex” challenges faced by the project.

“This is an extremely diverse county and very complicated geography,” explained Monson. “You don’t know what it’s like unless you’ve been off the roads.”

Monson said Select Tech provided design expertise for the project and expressed amazement at how complicated the process became.

The project made use of existing towers on McCrakken Mesa, Cedar Mesa, Rapplee Ridge, Clay Hill, and schools in Monument Valley, Navajo Mountain, and Montezuma Creek.

Other organizations participated in the project, offering use of two towers owned by Elk Petroleum and the 200-foot Utah Navajo Health Systems tower in Montezuma Creek.

The project built new larger towers at Lansing Mesa, McElmo Mesa, Douglas Mesa, the Monument Valley Clinic, and chapter houses in Aneth, Red Mesa, and Mexican Water.

That was just the beginning. Approximately 50 smaller towers (up to 40 feet tall), held in place with guy-lines, helped form the subsidiary network, along with a similar number of pole-mounted towers.

Finally, smaller nodes were placed and connected approximately 500 homes to the network.

Monson said residents and businesses were willing to cooperate and do just about “anything to help the kids.”

Each piece of the puzzle required cooperation and help.

Many challenges remain, including a lack of connection for approximately ten percent of the students.

Geography and electricity are the biggest ongoing challenges.

Electrical power is needed to send and receive information on the system. In addition, some homes are in areas that are hard to reach with wireless because of the topography.

“There are simply some areas that we can’t get to right now,” said Monson. “I hope that we find maintenance funds to keep this going.”

Ongoing funding options that were discussed include $1 billion in funds set aside for tribes in CARES Act funding.

“As we move forward, we will be able to fine tune this,” said Monson. “We have met with every single person along the way, and have a relationship with them.”

San Juan Record

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