A project to bring faster internet to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe got a major boost after a federal agency awarded $22.7 million to the community to build broadband infrastructure.
The funding, made available through last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, would pay to build the so-called middle-mile connections linking communities in southwestern Colorado and nearby White Mesa, Utah to the big internet pipes crossing the nation. There’s also support to build fiber internet lines built directly to 104 homes, businesses and local government facilities in the tribal communities that currently have no service in Utah.
The grant would lift a large swath of the unserved Colorado community into broadband land, and provide an estimated 817 households, seven businesses and 36 community institutions with internet speeds between 200 megabits to 1 gigabit speeds up and down, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
“We are making an historic investment in Tribal communities to ensure reliable, affordable high-speed Internet for all,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a news release. “Today’s awards will not only build high-speed Internet capacity within Tribal Nations, but also bring digital opportunities for good-paying jobs, education, and healthcare.”
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Tribal communities near the southwestern town of Towaoc, where the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is headquartered, are among the last regions of the state with subpar or no internet. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe tried to attract an internet service provider before deciding recently to go at it on its own, said Bernadette Cuthair, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s director of planning and development.
“We did veer down the path to try to work with other vendors but it’s very tough because sometimes they try to monopolize it and say, ‘I’m the only game in town’ and that’s true,” Cuthair said. “That’s why the tribe is moving towards their own internet service provider.”
And her community needs it. While government maps showed the area has what is considered federally adequate speeds of 25 mbps and higher, the reality is that speeds drop to as slow as 3-megabits, she said.
“During Zoom calls, it’ll time out,” she said. “And it’s right in the middle of talking. I lose my momentum when it goes out and I’m like, ‘Oh, I think that was my cue to stop.’”
The Ute Mountain Utes have been working on their own plan to get the community faster internet. During the 2021 legislative session, officials presented $23 million worth of projects that would help get internet to government and educational facilities and set up their own internet service provider.
The state legislature passed Bill 1298, which set aside $20 million for the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes for broadband infrastructure.
The tribe would still need to get contractors and design approved to tap into the $22.7 million grant, but the plans are ready to go. “We’re ready to pick those individuals we want because we want to stay local,” Cuthair said.
Overall, the investment could benefit 2,100 members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, all households in White Mesa and businesses, as well as the broader community, according to Ute officials.
The award was one of 23 grants announced Tuesday to benefit tribal communities and part of the $1.35 billion awarded to 94 Tribal entities so far, according to the NTIA.
“We’re not a wealthy tribe by any means, but we try to think innovative, outside the box and (find) take these opportunities that are out there to improve our community,” Cuthair said. “Most nations are really struggling to even figure out the starting point of having a broadband engineer to help you with a plan, access the resources and help you with the direction.”