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UNHS tackles communications challenge - Medically Speaking, Volume Two, Number Eight, 02/12/15

Long distance communications in San Juan County has always been a difficult issue to manage with mountains, canyons and remote areas, where dead spots linger to disrupt connections.

But not withstanding the treacherous terrains that make communicating from one area to another challenging, Utah Navajo Health System, Inc. has devised a system that allows efficient communications between it's clinics in Blanding, Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain. A series of microwave relay points from Blanding to McCracken Mesa to Cedar Mesa and on to Clay Hill makes it all possible, according to UNHS/Blue Mountain Hospital IT Manager Anthony Torres.

Torres explains that the system is a microwave network that runs from Blanding to McCracken Mesa. The McCracken Mesa station is powered by the existing utility provider with a generator backup. This provides communications to the Montezuma Creek Community Health Center. The network then sends the signal to relay stations at Cedar Mesa and then on to Clay Hill. These stations are solar powered with battery backup systems that have a multi-day reserve capability. From Clay Hill the signals travel to UNHS Community Health Centers in Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain.

The lines from McCracken Mesa to Cedar Mesa and Clay Hill are part of the Utah Telehealth Network, provided by a company known as Conterra. Conterra provides maintenance and upkeep of the lines and the two relay stations, including snow removal in the winter. UNHS owns the lines from its Blanding Family Practice Community Health Center and the Old Blanding Family Practice Clinic to McCracken Mesa and Montezuma Creek.

UNHS began this system in response to what Torres calls the 'Digital Divide' that has isolated the Utah Portion of the Navajo Reservation from the fiber optic world. Torres noted that fiber optics have been provided to residents of San Juan County all the way to the south end of Blanding. But the network stops there, leaving areas south of Blanding without fiber optic service. Fiber optics are also provided to residents of Arizona, but not to areas that might provide fiber optic service to places like Navajo Mountain and Monument Valley, leaving those areas without fiber optic service. Torres said he understands the business aspect of why fiber optic service hasn't been provided in this large gap on the Utah Portion of the Navajo Reservation, but there are a lot of people who could benefit from fiber optics being provided to this region.

The absence of fiber optic lines on the Utah Portion of the Navajo Reservation leaves a huge gap in the communication service to residents of that area. An area that includes three UNHS Community Health Centers, facilities that could benefit from fiber optic service, especially with the recent affiliation between UNHS and University of Utah Health Care. This affiliation provides the opportunity for UNHS providers to consult with U of U providers and specialists via telehealth services. Fiber optic service would make telehealth services much quicker and clearer, making these consultations between UNHS providers and U of U specialists more meaningful and beneficial for UNHS patients.

One day, fiber optics might make their way into the area of the 'digital divide' but for now, the UNHS microwave system, supported by the 150-foot microwave tower at the UNHS Navajo Mountain Community Health Center, is serving UNHS and its patients well.

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