WESTERN SAN JUANS – The Broomfield-based telecommunications co-op EAGLENet Alliance is waiting for a determination from the feds in the coming weeks for guidance about whether work on its statewide broadband buildout can move forward.
The ambitious three-year project, now entering its final year, has been touted as a “fiber-optic freeway” that has the potential to dramatically improve rural broadband service to many communities on the Western Slope and across the state.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration ordered a suspension of the project on Dec. 6 after learning that EAGLENet 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 EAGLENet’s response was deemed insufficient, NTIA ordered all work to come to a halt until it comes back into compliance.
EAGLENet officials say they are working to satisfy the feds’ requests for information, and that the suspension is merely a “temporary postponement.”
EAGLENet, funded by a $100.6 million federal stimulus grant, is contracted to connect 170 communities and over 200 “anchor institutions” throughout the state with a 1 gigabit fiber-optic or microwave Internet connection.
So far, according to Silverton-based EAGLENet Regional Community Representative Pat Swonger, the organization has reached about half of its target institutions and communities, including many on the Western Slope, and has spent about two-thirds of its funding (some of which is committed toward work in year three).
“We are not seeing [the NTIA suspension] as a show-stopper,” Swonger said. “It is a delay, but if you are going to have one, this [winter] is a good time.”
If the delay stretches on too long, however, it could impact EAGLENet’s ability to reach Silverton and other southwestern Colorado communities slated for hookup next summer. EAGLENet’s mission is paid for with stimulus funding under NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The funding expires in August 2013.
Worst-case scenario, Swonger said, “If the hold goes on for a long time, yes, we could absolutely run out of money. When you are executing a finite plan and you start changing the timing, it puts everything at risk. Once you get on a hold like this, everything is in jeopardy. Everyone has to realize the timelines and what’s at stake.”
NTIA itself appears confident that EAGLENet’s present problems can be fixed. As NTIA official Anthony Wilhelm told Broadcasting & Cable last month,“Our expectation is that EAGLENet will resolve these issues so that the project can quickly resume and continue to deliver broadband benefits to communities statewide.”
SILVERTON’S FIGHT FOR FIBER
Silverton has more at stake in the EAGLENet broadband buildout than perhaps any other community in the state. Its limited telecommunications infrastructure currently consists of a series of microwave towers. Because of the town’s remoteness and rugged terrain, extending a fiber-optic line there poses unique challenges.
That’s part of the reason why Qwest (now CenturyLink) left Silverton behind over a decade ago in a $37 million contract with the state of Colorado to link every county seat with reliable high-speed Internet access. The Silverton-based advocacy group Operation Link-Up has been fighting for fiber ever since.
“We [Silverton] really are the mouse that roared,” said Swonger, who is also a Silverton Town Trustee and Operation Link-Up founding member. “We are the poster child for fiber-optic connectivity.”
EAGLENet does have a plan to reach Silverton, but Swonger said it depends upon a number of complex pieces falling into place in a timely manner. The organization has struck an agreement with the Colorado Department of Transportation to bury fiber from Durango to Cascade (about halfway to Silverton) along the statewide highway corridor. From there, the fiber will come in on Tri-State power lines the last 17 miles. Since this would represent a change of use, Tri-State must obtain necessary permits from the U.S. Forest service and other entities, and must also change out the overhead ground wire to allow for a fiber-optic core.
“We have to get things moving quick,” Swonger said. “A lot is at stake, and we don’t want a long shutdown. I think Silverton will happen, but it’s obviously complicated and we don’t have a lot of time. We’ve got until August to get this done.”
A PROBLEM OF TIMING
Addressing NTIA concerns that led to the stop-work order, Swonger said that the problem areas are isolated to Pagosa Springs and Montrose, the result of “subtle route changes” that were made in the field as crews worked to dig trenches, place conduit and string fiber there last summer. NTIA viewed the modifications as partially implemented new network designs for which EAGLENet failed to receive advance approval.
The changes put 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.
This may sound serious. But the problem is really one of timing, Swonger explained. The slow-turning wheels of the federal agencies are not geared to be in sync with EAGLENet, which is moving at relatively lightning speed to complete its ambitious project by August.
“We are not a bunch of yahoos,” he said of the changes that were made. “EAGLENet has contracted with professional fiber-optic experts; it’s all been professionally done.”
Ideally, Swonger said, NTIA’s forthcoming determination will allow EAGLENet to isolate Montrose and Pagosa from the project as a whole, “and do whatever we have got to do to deal with specific problems, rather than stopping the whole program, since it was just two issues that prompted the action.”
On the Western Slope, EAGLENet has reached about 90 percent of communities, including Ouray, Ridgway, Montrose, Delta, Norwood, and soon Telluride.
EAGLENet is contracted to provide fiber-optic connectivity to every school district in the state, and to many other community “anchor institutions” such as libraries and colleges. For these entities, the company can act as its own Internet service provider, and is able to offer discounted co-op rates.
But EAGLENet’s open-access infrastructure also exists as a “middle mile” (a sort of fiber-optic freeway) that so-called “last mile” Internet service providers ranging to tiny OurayNet to giant CenturyLink may tap into (for a fee) in order to sell extra bandwidth to their own customers.
However, even in places where the EAGLENet fiber has already been installed, these last-mile providers will not be able to access the fiber and make it “go live” until the problem with NTIA is resolved.
Last fall, EAGLENet and its project came under attack as “government-provided socialized broadband” from a number of area cable operators and telcos, including Comcast and CenturyLink, which alleged EAGLENet’s federally funded effort to deliver services to anchor institutions is nothing more than a means to overbuild existing infrastructure and “cherry pick” school and library customers.
A Republican delegation of Colorado lawmakers, in a Sept. 17 letter to NTIA, called for an immediate halt to EAGLENet’s telecommunications build-out efforts currently underway across Colorado. The letter was signed by Congressmen Cory Gardner, Mike Coffman, Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn.
NTIA officials have stated that the present suspension has nothing to do with these allegations.