SILVERTON – “Qwest was paid to build an information superhighway to Silverton, and they barely widened the existing mule trail.”
So said San Juan County Administrator Willie Tookey on June 30 of this year, when Silverton and San Juan County filed a complaint with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission against Denver-based Qwest Communications.
Back in 2000 Qwest signed a $37 million contract with the state to supply high-speed telecommunications services, via fiber optic cable, to every one of Colorado’s 64 county seats. By 2005 Qwest had provided fiber to 63 of those counties. But not to Silverton, a former mining boomtown reduced now a community of only about 500 full-time residents.
For its part, Qwest says it has fulfilled its obligation and will not finish the fiber link.
“We were told the microwave upgrade that Qwest did provide us would be an interim solution,” testified Pat Swonger, a Silverton town trustee and co-founder of Operation Linkup, a local group devoted to Silverton’s telecommunications future. “We were told we’d just have to wait [for the fiber optic]. Wait until hell freezes over, as it turns out.”
Swonger was one of a dozen witnesses who testified, on both sides, at a PUC hearing held in Silverton last Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 14 and 15. Silverton wants the PUC to force Qwest to complete the fiber link. Qwest wants to convince the PUC that there is no need, that Silverton has all the service it could possibly use.
The hearing proceeded like a trial, with black-robed Administrative Law Judge Harris Adams of Denver presiding, banks of lawyers on either side of the aisle, and expert witnesses determined to hold their own, under oath, through what was often tough cross-examination.
Swonger was called first by the town and county, who are being represented pro bono by the Denver law firm Holland & Hart LLP. He was asked to explain the Multi-Use Network Project, undertaken in 1999 to bring uniform, universal phone and data services to all parts of Colorado. Qwest (then US West) won the bid to build the fiber optic network, which was supposed to be completed by April 30, 2003. When that date was not met, Qwest and the state negotiated a contract amendment to “fiber-ize” Silverton by June 30, 2005. In the meantime, Qwest also agreed to upgrade the microwave (radio) service from Durango that has been Silverton’s sole telecommunications lifeline for 50 years. The microwave signal hops 30-plus miles – across the mountains via passive reflecting “billboards” and active repeaters on Missionary Ridge and Coal Bank Pass – to the Silverton central office and back along the same route. The system can be compromised by heavy rain or snow. Business owners in Silverton complained during the hearing that in the busy summer months, when the town’s afternoon population can swell to over 20,000 visitors, credit card authorizations sometimes slow to a crawl or are dropped altogether. Large data files sometimes can’t be downloaded at all. A man with an excavation business in Silverton testified that he often has large bid files sent to his wife’s office in Cortez, and she faxes them to him. “These companies are frustrated with me. It makes them wonder if I’m inept.”
In January 2005, the microwave system was down completely for over six hours when an avalanche took out power to the Coal Bank repeater. “E-mail was out,” Swonger said. “Cell phones were out. There was a dial tone in town, but 911 calls, which are usually routed to Montrose dispatch, went only to the Sheriff’s Office in Silverton, which is staffed just from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”
The microwave system is not “diverse,” Swonger explained. That is, there is only one path in and out. A failure at any point on the route could leave Silverton stranded again. “We’d be back 100 years to ringing bells and running to the neighbors.”
Meanwhile, Qwest did bury fiber cable from Durango up Highway 550 to Cascade Village on the San Juan County line just north of Purgatory. But they stopped there, with 16 highway miles left to go to Silverton. It’s rough terrain, Qwest said. And they were having trouble getting rights-of-way across private land. The 2005 deadline came and went. Some in the audience believed that Qwest never intended to finish the link into San Juan County.
The town and county called Ed Moreland to the stand. He is the longtime director of the Region 9 Economic Development District for southwest Colorado. Moreland told of meetings with Qwest representatives about the missed 2005 deadline. “Publicly,” he said, “Qwest told us it was a very tough build,” but that they were working on it. “Privately,” he said, “they expressed skepticism that so much money would be spent to serve such a small population.”
Does the lack of fiber optic affect the business climate, asked a town/county attorney? “I believe that perception is reality,” Moreland answered. “Tech people might make the case that there is no difference in capability between microwave and fiber optic. But people, new businesses, say they want fiber. And you,” he said, meaning Silverton, “don’t have it.”
Qwest’s argument was precisely that, a technical case of how the microwave system (upgraded in 2006 to 7 megabits/second broadband) provides all the basic and advanced services Silverton could want, or should expect. To that end, their lawyers on Wednesday called witnesses to counter just about everything the complaintants said on Tuesday. All of Qwest’s witnesses were Qwest employees.
Mike Williams is Senior Director of Public Policy for Service Quality. He testified that the number of trouble reports lodged with Qwest from Silverton was fewer than four per 100 lines, “which is quite good relative to the PUC standard. So, uniformity of service [compared to the rest of the state] is good.”
(Under cross-examination, some Silverton business owners had testified that they didn’t bother to call Qwest with complaints because they didn’t expect service to improve.)
Qwest called Murkel Mansell, its Right-of-Way Manager. He testified that private landowners along the final 16 miles to Silverton had either denied right-of-way or simply ignored Qwest’s letters of inquiry.
Under cross-examination, Mansell was asked: Is it impossible for Qwest to secure the rights to build a fiber optic facility from Durango to Silverton? His answer was “No.” Are you pretty good at getting rights of way? “Yes.” Even in difficult circumstances? “If there’s enough money, you can get the rights.”
Phil Linse’s testimony was key to Qwest’s defense. He is their director of Legal Issues for Network. Linse said that he looked at 30-day data records for November 2010 to see if Silverton was overtaxing its land line capacity and found that only 5 percent of capacity was being used. He also looked at records for the previous 12 weeks and found that the 220 DSL subscribers in Silverton used only about 50 percent of that capacity. Your conclusion, asked the Qwest layer? “We have excess capacity.”
Judge Adams had a couple of questions for Linse. Could you have pulled data from one of the 30-day summer months [when demand is so much greater than in November]? Answer: “We weren’t researching those kind of things until later in the discovery process.” Are there any other Qwest microwave facilities in Colorado? Answer: “Yes. One other. Southwest of here. Where the cliff dwellings are.”
Silverton’s technical expert was Corey Bryndal, who owns a Durango-based company that installs fiber-optic systems, most recently for the cities of Durango, Bayfield and Cortez. Bryndal testified that the 7 megabits of download speed Silverton has available might have been considered fast 10 years ago, but that international standards are many times that now. He said that at that speed, 6.4 customers downloading movies, say, at the same time would max out the system. He said that the capacity being provided by Qwest now would not support the use of advanced wireless services like 3G (let alone 4G) mobile voice and data services in Silverton, technology for which there is “voracious” demand, and which Qwest itself is heavily marketing elsewhere.
“We simply want to join the rest of Colorado on a fiber-optic backbone for uniformity and equal economic opportunity,” concluded Swonger.
Judge Adams will now take the case under advisement. His recommended decision to the PUC will likely not come before March. If either side contests the recommended decision, the full three-member PUC will decide the case.