A push to bring Wi-Fi to students on the Navajo Nation is made urgent by the pandemic

Crews are working hard to bring internet to 500 homes scattered across rough, mountainous terrain.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tower technicians Nathan Berry, above, and Jory Christiansen work to bring internet to students in the Navajo Nation community of Halchita on Dec. 8, 2020. The tower was installed this fall with CARES Act funds and will receive a signal from a larger tower on distant Raplee Ridge.

Monument Valley On a windswept hill atop a nondescript mesa in San Juan County, Aaron Brewer, education technology director for the San Juan School District, looked out over half of southern Utah.

Navajo Mountain loomed to the west; the Henry Mountains and Bears Ears Buttes framed the sky to the north, and to the east Sleeping Ute Mountain and the La Plata Mountains sparkled with fresh Colorado snow. But the southern view was most impressive: the towers of nearby Monument Valley hanging huge and jagged on the horizon.

Between these high landmarks lay a thousand canyons and arroyos, long spines of uplifted sandstone and green pockets fed by hidden springs. The dramatic landscape is not some uninhabited wilderness, however, but home to thousands of people living on the northern reaches of the Navajo Nation, and it’s Brewer’s job to help connect the students in those homes to the worldwide web.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aaron Brewer, education technology director for the San Juan School District, stands on a recently poured tower pad atop Douglas Mesa. The tower will help provide internet to students and clinics on the Navajo Nation.

“San Juan County offers so many unique challenges,” Brewer said, “but that’s what makes it a special place.”

The region’s iconic topography is one of those challenges. Just getting internet to all of the school buildings in the district requires a complex series of microwave towers on remote high points scattered throughout Utah’s largest county.

After the coronavirus pandemic shut down all of the schools on and near the Navajo Nation last spring, a need which had long been recognized by the district was placed front and center for Brewer. In order to learn effectively, especially during the pandemic, students needed access to the home internet as soon as possible.

Although the goal was clear, the path to get there was not. This summer, the school district put out a request to private companies, asking for bids to build a series of towers across the reservation that would bring the internet to 500 homes. The price tag: nearly $4 million.

Instead of being daunted by the sum, however, Brewer said district employees and state lawmakers recognized the need.

“The support we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive,” Brewer said. “A lot of people came together to help make it happen.”

In August, the state Legislature approved $3.9 million for the project with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds. Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who represent San Juan County, both supported the appropriation, and work on the project began immediately after funds were secured.

The first step was mapping out locations for what Brewer calls the “backbone,” a series of 30-foot towers to receive and transmit signals from the district’s main towers. The network requires clear line-of-sight connections to operate, and careful planning was needed to ensure there would be no breaks in the chain. Reaching the community of Oljato, for example, required a dozen towers be placed in a giant 180-degree bend to bring the signal around a tall mesa.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Berry, a tower technician, works to bring internet to students in southern San Juan County on Dec. 8, 2020.

The district found partners for the project, notably Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS), which manages clinics located next to many of the area schools, and has also experienced an increased need for bandwidth to expand its telehealth capabilities during the pandemic. Concrete has already been laid for a major tower on Douglas Mesa that will be utilized by both the district’s backbone towers and by UNHS.

For each of the 50 towers that make up the backbone, the district had to get permission from the residents who have Navajo Nation homesite leases, a process that Brewer said went quickly thanks to widespread support for the project.

Most of the backbone was completed by early December, but only a handful of homes have been connected to the internet so far, making it difficult for many students to keep up with schoolwork. Data released by the district at recent school board meetings indicates the majority of students are falling behind in areas that are still dependent on unreliable hot spot connections or have no home internet access at all.

Due in part to the worrying numbers, the school board decided to end a home-learning option for students attending school in Blanding and Monticello in October, which sparked outcry from parents and students who felt it was not safe to return to in-person classes in a county that has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

The district’s southern schools have remained entirely virtual, and teachers have reported working the longest hours of their careers in an attempt to keep students on track.

Some of those problems should begin to abate as the home internet connections begin in the coming weeks, which will allow students to access a filtered range of websites.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aaron Brewer, education technology director for the San Juan School District, stands beside teacher housing in Halchita, Utah, where he lived for several years while working as an elementary school principal on the Navajo Nation. Brewer is currently working to connect 500 homes in San Juan County to the internet.

“They’ll be able to watch approved YouTube videos,” Brewer said. “They’ll be able to get onto their learning management system. They’ll be able to do conferencing with teachers in the district — those kinds of things.” Netflix and Facebook will be off limits, but students in higher education will be able to use the system.

For the homes without electricity, the project will be harder and Brewer said the district is hoping to develop relationships with groups installing solar panels on homes. It’s not clear how long it will take to complete the project, especially if an extension isn’t granted for CARES Act funds, which sunset at the end of the year.

“We’re really trying to work with the governor’s office and our congressional delegation to allow us to finish it,” Brewer said. “We’ve been working hard. We’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing, so I am hopeful [we’ll be granted an extension].”

If that doesn’t happen, the district will purchase all the required equipment for the project before the end of the year and possibly sign service contracts, but it may have to find other ways to fund final construction and maintenance costs.

Once the project is complete, Brewer said it will provide long-lasting benefits for students in years to come, since many students had trouble doing homework at home prior to the pandemic.

“This is hopefully going to be a game changer not only for COVID,” he said, “but also for our educational opportunities in the future.”

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 by clicking here.