Bluff • The rural communities of White Mesa, Bluff and Montezuma Creek are scheduled to gain high-speed internet access next year as a $17.5 million, multiagency project moves forward to bring fiber optic-based broadband to the southern part of San Juan County.

The first phase of the project will extend the fiber optic connection from Blanding, where it was installed in 2015, to Bluff and Montezuma Creek elementary schools.

The second phase, tentatively scheduled to begin in 2021, will bring broadband to the remote corners of the county, including the Navajo Nation towns of Oljato-Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain.

“It could be a game changer for our southern part of the county,” said San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican from Monticello who worked to secure funding for the projects. “Without connectivity, you’re behind the line as far as opportunities in this world, and certainly we want the Navajo people to have the same connectivity opportunities as the rest of the world.”

Schools on the Navajo Nation and in Bluff currently have internet but only through lower bandwidth connections, which can mean slower speeds and more frequent outages.

“There haven’t been a lot of opportunities to help fund connectivity in some of these rural locations,” said Jeff Egly, associate director for the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN). “There are a lot of high-cost, low-population geographic challenges.”

Those same challenges mean that even if broadband reaches the schools on the Navajo Nation, it is not likely to be immediately available to the thousands of remote residences, many of which still lack running water and electricity, let alone internet. Nonetheless, having the fiber optic lines in place is a necessary first step to future expansion.

Egly said UETN — a state entity that works to connect hospitals, K-12 schools and libraries to telecommunications services — was able to provide funding that allowed the project to tap into the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate program, which is also designed to help connect schools and libraries to broadband.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The $5 million required for the first phase of the project was finalized last year and the construction bid was awarded to Emery Telcom, a nonprofit, community-owned utilities cooperative.

Emery Telcom helped find a different grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will extend the lines from Bluff to all residences in Mexican Hat and Halchita as part of a $2.5 million project.

The second phase of the UETN project, which will bring fiber optic lines from Halchita to Navajo Mountain, carries a hefty $10 million price tag and requires construction through northern Arizona.

Last year, when Adams learned the final piece of the project was eligible for a 9-to-1 funding match from the FCC, he traveled to Salt Lake City and helped persuade the state Legislature to appropriate $1 million to UETN so the project would qualify for the other $9 million.

“If we get the [high-speed] internet to the schools, it wouldn’t be long until it would be available to the chapters and other places on the reservation,” Adams said, adding that the service could boost employment opportunities for residents.

“Once the fiber is down there, it will open the market to numerous providers,” said Brock Johansen, Emery Telcom’s CEO. For example, new cell towers could tap into the lines to provide high-speed data service. Navajo Nation utility providers could opt to sell internet services through the new lines.

Johansen’s company is also working on projects to bring fiber to residences in the small communities of La Sal and Castle Valley. “We really believe in serving these rural areas,” he said.

The next major hurdle in the southern San Juan County project is securing the necessary permitting, including a right-of-way agreement with the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe so construction can move ahead on tribal lands.

Adams met with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, last month, and Adams said Nez is aware the right-of-way approval is approaching a deadline at the end of November.

The numerous grants involved each has its own expiration date, which puts pressure on advancing the collaborative process.

(Courtesy of the Utah Education and Telehealth Network) A graphic representing the many entities collaborating on the broadband expansion project in San Juan County.

Richard Finlinson, associate communications director for UETN, said that permitting is a much slower part of the process than construction. He noted the large number of entities that are involved in the project, including San Juan County, Emery Telcom, state and federal agencies, communications agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Department of Transportation, and two sovereign tribal nations.

"All of these pieces of the puzzle have to work together to make this happen,” Finlinson said. “Sometimes, you know, politically, you see nothing but contention. For this project, you have to have nothing but collaboration in order for it to come together. And I think it demonstrates a high level of collaboration.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.