Broadband and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe During the Pandemic

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In March 2020, the Director of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (UMUT) Mógúán Behavioral Health Program (MBHP) contacted the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) about their need to communicate with clients while following the stay-at-home order in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UMUT lies within the southwest corner of Colorado. UMUT has 575,000 contiguous acres spanning across Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. To reduce exposure to COVID-19, the MBHP began leveraging teletherapy to deliver mental health services. However, lack of a robust infrastructure, areas without internet availability, and affordability prevented much of the Tribal population from using the teletherapy services to conduct simple things like conference calls. The majority of the affected clients live in and around the town of Towaoc, an eight-square mile area with approximately 200 homes. A large portion of this population are living in poverty. Many access the internet via pay as you go mobile phone services with limited data plans. Because these mobile plans offer low bandwidth and data caps they are unable to support the teletherapy, telehealth, eLearning, and public safety needs of the tribal members.

To help solve these issues, the CBO began contacting major transport network companies and other partners that could contribute to potential solutions. We made it clear that it was paramount to address the immediate connectivity needs (30-90 days) to establish a robust broadband data and communication experience for as many users as possible. In addition, we asked that the technologies deployed could be leveraged for a longer time period considering that the stay-at-home orders may be extended. Our goal was to work with UMUT and the private sector partners to create a strategic solution that would address the short term needs, but that would enable the Tribe to leverage the same solution for long term broadband needs. To this end potential partners brought proposals that would accomplish this goal.

Verizon and Sprint responded to our request for help and both began to assemble personnel to leverage assets and technologies to address the needs of UMUT. During the month of April, the CBO and the UMUT conducted meetings with multiple companies to discuss possible solutions, including using available assets in the region, leveraging aerostats, microwave, and mesh networks.   

Verizon responded quickly by sending 25 tablets and 2 CradlePoint routers from their critical incident assets to assist with connectivity of individuals and agencies. They also positioned the Critical Incident Team to provide other assets to the Tribe as needed. One CradlePoint router was set up at the Senior Center at White Mesa and the other near Mancos Creek. Verizon also offered to fine tune their tower above Towaoc to provide additional coverage for parts of the Tribal region, which includes part of Utah and New Mexico. Similar assistance was offered to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe (SUIT). 

Verizon will continue to assist the Tribes during and after the pandemic to bring better service to both the UMUT and the SUIT. The CBO began meetings with the SUIT in September to look at available options to bring better connectivity to their territory. The CBO will continue working closely with both Tribes and the carriers to consider the Tribes’ connectivity needs for mental health, telemedicine, education and public safety.

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