WESTERN SAN JUANS – The controversy over EAGLE-Net’s 4,600-mile broadband stimulus project spun like a whirling dervish from Colorado to the halls of Washington this week, when critics, including Colorado U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, testified Wednesday at a congressional hearing highlighting problematic broadband expansion projects funded by federal stimulus dollars.
This came on the heels of a hearing Tuesday at the state capitol in Denver, at which lawmakers on the legislative audit committee chided EAGLE-Net officials for the project's alleged lack of transparency and demanded that EAGLE-Net submit a financial audit to the state by the end of March.
The ambitious three-year EAGLE-Net project, now in its final year, has been touted as a “fiber-optic freeway” with the potential to dramatically improve rural broadband service to many communities on the Western Slope and across the state. Funded by a $100.6 million federal stimulus grant awarded in 2010, the Broomfield-based telecommunications consortium is contracted to connect 170 communities and more than 200 “anchor institutions” throughout the state with a 1 gigabit fiber-optic or microwave Internet connection.
Critics of the EAGLE-Net Alliance (which stands for Educational Access Gateway Learning Environment Network) complain that the consortium is laying in fiber in areas where it already exists, and thus directly competing with “small mom and pop” carriers that have already invested millions to service small communities on the eastern plains. Telecom behemoths including CenturyLink have also criticized the endeavor.
Recent stories in the Denver Post, The New York Times and on National Public Radio, and an investigative piece on Denver’s 9News, have echoed this storyline, giving Gardner a podium from which to broadcast his allegations.
“I wonder why EAGLE-Net spent all this time duplicating services on eastern plains where it’s easy to build instead of focusing on harder to reach areas like Silverton or Ouray?” Gardner asked NPR reporter Grace Hood in a story that aired on the news program All Things Considered Wednesday, Feb. 13.
In fact, many communities on the Western Slope, including Ouray, Ridgway, Montrose and Delta, have already been serviced by EAGLE-Net and now have fiber installed right to the doorsteps of their schools and anchor institutions.
Silverton is among the few communities in the region that have not yet been serviced; The town was slated to be hooked up in the third year of the project implementation,now on hold due to a work stoppage order stemming from the project’s funding suspension in December, when it was found to be in violation of certain environmental requirements.
But critics who argue that EAGLE-Net is irresponsibly laying redundant fiber appear to be either missing the point or deliberately skewing their message, say EAGLE-Net officials, who readily acknowledge that redundancy is a central part of their mission to serve government and nonprofit groups with a public access “middle-mile” network (a sort of fiberoptic freeway) that “last mile providers” may then tap into, passing the bandwidth on to customers and thus connecting disparate local networks with the national Internet backbone. The public access component is intended to ensure that monopolies that currently exist cannot be perpetuated, especially in hard-to-reach communities. Once the network is complete, multiple Internet Service Providers may lease bandwidth to provide competing service plans for individuals and communities statewide.
Another component of the project is to create a dedicated fiber intranet network connecting all Colorado public schools to enhance distance learning opportunities and collaborative teaching, among other things. This network would co-exist with and compliment the broadband connectivity that many schools already enjoy.
A coalition of conservative Colorado lawmakers including Gardner and fellow Reps. Mike Coffman, Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn, started making noise about EAGLE-Net last fall, terming it “government-provided socialized broadband” and drafting a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration demanding the agency freeze payments from EAGLE-Net’s broadband stimulus grant.
“U.S. taxpayers are being forced to subsidize a federal initiative whose most substantial accomplishment ultimately could be to put Colorado’s rural telecommunications industry out of business,” their letter stated.
In December, EAGLE-Net endured a fresh batch of bad publicity after the NTIA ordered a suspension of the project on Dec. 6, after learning that EAGLE-Net may be building infrastructure on some routes not included in its initial environmental impact study. The federal agency asked EAGLENet to clarify and resolve the issue last fall. When EAGLE-Net’s response was deemed insufficient, NTIA ordered all work to come to a halt until it comes back into compliance.
The problem compliance areas are isolated to Pagosa Springs and Montrose, according to EAGLE-Net local official Pat Swonger, the result of “subtle route changes” made in the field as crews worked to dig trenches, place conduit and string fiber last summer.
But NTIA viewed the modifications as partially implemented new network designs for which EAGLE-Net failed to receive advance approval.
The changes sent the project into a tailspin of noncompliance with multiple entities, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA-Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Federal Communications Commission.
EAGLE-Net officials are working to satisfy the feds’ requests for information, and say the suspension is merely a “temporary postponement” that should be resolved in another month.
So far, EAGLE-Net has reached about half of its target institutions and communities statewide, and spent about two-thirds of its money (some of which is committed toward upcoming work in year three), Swonger said.