The fiber-optic cable being buried by the thousands of miles under tribal lands delivers more than high-speed internet: It's leveling the playing field for underserved communities at a time when online learning and remote work have become parts of daily life.
Protected in conduit made of high density polyethylene, the electrical and telecommunications wiring is bridging a digital divide among tribal, rural and urban areas. Just 67 percent of tribal lands in the continental U.S. have access to broadband, according to a 2021 Federal Communications Commission report. And just 46.5 percent have connections that meet the minimum requirements for high-speed internet (download speeds of 25 mbps and upload speeds of 3 mbps).
These FCC statistics are a best-case scenario, according to the American Indian Policy Institute, which says lack of fast internet service impedes economic growth, community health, education and civic engagement. The research institute, which is based in Phoenix at Arizona State University, calls tribal broadband "an infrastructure that quite literally could have saved lives had it been in place prior to the onset of the pandemic."
Conduit extruder United Poly Systems LLC is part of a team with resin producer Dow Inc. and Sacred Wind Communications Inc. that is filling so called dot-com deserts with broadband. The three companies are in the middle of a project that will provide 3.61 million feet, or nearly 600 miles, of HDPE conduit for high-speed, fiber-optic internet to preschools, libraries and homes in New Mexico and Arizona.
With $90 million in annual sales, United Poly Systems ranks 51st among North American pipe, profile and tubing extruders, according to Plastics News' latest ranking. The company was recently acquired by Harvey, Ill.-based Atkore Inc., which is ranked seventh, with $860 million in pipe sales, according to the rankings.
Business is brisk for Springfield, Mo.-based United Poly, which has two plants in Missouri and New Mexico, but the company was committed to getting conduit to the project area in rural and tribal areas of New Mexico.
United Poly's customer, Yatahey, N.M.-based Sacred Wind Communications, is overseeing the effort to connect 54 preschools and libraries and tens of thousands of homes in the Navajo Nation reservation and the Grants, Milan and Bluewater communities.