June 19, 2024

Counties, Southern Utes leverage over $70 million in grant funds for broadband – The Durango Herald

Over 300 miles of fiber-optic installation slated for next few years

Southern Ute Shared Services Broadband & Digital Equity Manager, Delbert Cuthair shares a laugh with representatives from Bonfire, the company installing and operating the tribe’s fiber-optic infrastructure, following a groundbreaking ceremony, Monday, Dec. 4. (Courtesy of Jeremy Wade Shockley/Southern Ute Drum)

Jeremy Wade Shockley

Infrastructure development rarely catches the eye, especially when it’s buried underground. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important or impressive.

Miles of buried fiber-optic cable throughout Southwest Colorado, largely on Southern Ute Indian Tribal lands, have brought or will soon bring reliable, high-speed internet and cell service to un- or underserved parts of the region.

The tribe, joined in partnership for some projects by counties and other stakeholders, is leveraging tens of millions of dollars in grants to fund the projects.

And last month, La Plata County, Archuleta County, Region 10 League for Economic Assistance and Planning and the La Plata Electric Association finalized an indefeasible right of use agreement with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

At a cost of $500,000 per party, the IRU gives the counties, Region 10 and LPEA ownership part of the tribe’s fiber for 20 years using matching grant funds from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

The fiber in question will run 33.5 miles along Colorado Highway 151 from Ignacio southeast through Allison and Arboles, and north to Pagosa Springs.

“Our focus is on redundancy,” La Plata County Commissioner Matt Salka said.

At least once last year, Archuleta County lost telecommunication service, including 9-1-1 dispatch, due to a cut in a fiber cable. The plan is for construction to start this summer on the Highway 151 project.

“The vision is, when the tribe is done with this Highway 151 effort, it’ll give us a Western path out of here,” Southern Ute Chief Information Officer Jeff Engman said.

For the SUIT, the Highway 151 project is just one part of a massive effort to bring high-speed connectivity to all corners of the tribal nation, including both native and non-native residents.

Technologically speaking, the region is isolated, and small interferences can disconnect entire population centers from connectivity. Even when there is a connection, it’s not always strong or reliable.

“We just (don’t) have access to high-speed internet,” Engman said. “It really isn’t affordable … We’re trying to get high speeds, make it affordable, and get people connected.”

Connectivity is important not just for entertainment, leaders say. It has become critical for equal access to services such as remote health care, as well as work and online schooling.

Using $15 million in grants from the state and federal programs, the tribe has already installed a 52-mile fiber backbone connecting Ignacio to Durango, Bayfield and Allison.

“The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has been a leader in broadband development,” Salka said.

The next phase will leverage $43.7 million in funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to build middle mile and last mile connectivity to 1,800 native homes and businesses.

Representatives from the Southern Ute Tribal Council, Southern Ute Shared Services, Bonfire (the contractor operating the fiber) and the Town of Ignacio stand together for a groundbreaking ceremony on a fiber-optic project in December. (Courtesy of Jeremy Wade Shockley/Southern Ute Drum)

Jeremy Wade Shockley

Tying in state funding, Engman estimated that the second phase will allow the tribe to connect 3,800 homes and businesses to high-speed internet with another 300 miles of fiber. Although the physical connection to the infrastructure is free, customers will still have to pay an internet service provider for their ongoing connectivity.

The tribe has contracted with two ISPs to serve the region using the fiber, and more may bring business going forward.

A recent award of $8.6 million from the state will enable the tribe to run fiber from near Twin Buttes, down Wildcat Canyon Road (County Road 141), and south on Colorado Highway 140 to the New Mexico state line.

To bolster connectivity, the SUIT is also exploring a partnership with the Jemez Pueblo, about 45 miles north of Albuquerque, to connect fiber from San Ysidro to the Apache Nugget Casino, through the Jicarilla Apache Nation Reservation and into the Highway 151 project via County Road 500.

The project would be entirely on native land and would benefit multiple tribes, SUIT Broadband and Digital Equity Manager Delbert Cuthair said. If the project is funded, Cuthair hopes to have it completed by the end of 2027.

Engman described the grant funding as “a blessing.’

“No business would ever put this amount of investment into this area,” he said. “There’s just not the return on investment. And so having this money and the tribe being the driver of this project, our goals aren’t hitting a return on investment. It’s trying to make this affordable, hit everybody we can, have the high speed.”


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