Rural Broadband Numbers Are Not as Advertised
OURAY COUNTY – To address a host of telecommunications issues that may be holding back business growth, Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett invited U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) for a visit on Aug. 16 to hear first hand how bad the Internet service is on places like Log Hill.
For years, Padgett has been hearing from small businesses that would like to relocate to the area but they can’t move to rural Colorado because of the spotty access to “reliable, redundant and affordable” broadband.
In Colona at the intersection of Hwy 550 and CR 1 during the senator’s tour, Padgett opened her laptop on the hood of a car and tested the actual download and upload speeds of the Sprint service right then and there. The download speed measured barely 50 percent of the “lowest advertised speed” people are paying for. The upload speed was “within the advertised range,” Padgett said.
Anecdotally, Padgett, who lives in the area, reported that the Sinclair station across the street has such poor connectivity “the credit at the pumps sometimes doesn’t work. If you’re low on gas, and it’s after hours, you gotta hope you make it to Montrose.”
Padgett and County IT Manager Jeff Bockes noted that high-capacity fiber optic cable was buried along Hwy. 550 years ago by CenturyLink’s telecom predecessor Qwest, but that the fiber has never been “lit.” It is what’s known as “dark fiber.” “And, CenturyLink won’t tell us anything, where it is, why they won’t light it up, nothing.”
Second tour stop was up on the mesa at McClaran Lane. There the group was joined by Randy Cassingham, who makes his living selling a daily newsletter “in 200 countries” via the Internet. But he can’t get Internet access from any of the local “last mile” providers and has to buy expensive service from two different providers outside the area.
Padgett and Bockes again tested the actual numbers. Verizon was delivering speeds that were “1-4 percent of their lowest advertised speeds” for both downloading and uploading. Sprint was in the same range. These were all under 1 megabyte per second (mbs). Urban areas of the U.S. are now getting “modern Internet,” between 20 and 40 mbs. These are the speeds necessary to operate 3G and 4G smart phones, to send and receive large files quickly, to, in effect, do business over the Internet.
Padgett couldn’t test the Skybeam fixed wireless service at this location because there was not. “That ridge over there (Piñon Ridge) is blocking the line-of sight necessary for wireless. And yet, she said, the Colorado and national broadband maps show all parts of Ouray County as being “served” by adequate broadband. The maps are “self-reported” by the industry, Padgett pointed out.
This is one of the “asks” Padgett hoped the senator could look into – getting the “served” and “underserved” portions of the maps aligned with the reality on the ground.
Third tour stop was on Tower Road on the Log Hill escarpment. The real-life broadband numbers, for Verizon CenturyLink and Ouraynet were better than the ones earlier in the day, but the group was standing right next to several communications towers. (They were still no better than 60 percent of the lowest advertised speeds.)
At this last stop the group heard from Ouray radio impresario, and electrical engineer, Ethan Funk, who said he could improve Internet access to parts of the county if it weren’t for the bureaucratic tangles. For example, he pointed out that a very modest tower (“I’d take a telephone pole.”) could be place on the previously mentioned Piñon Ridge. It would at least allow wireless service to more than 100 homes that don’t have it now. But the BLM has told him the permit would take eight years.
Padgett told the senator that the county and local entrepreneurs are stymied now because they don’t meet the “underserved” criteria to qualify for loans under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service Telecommunications Programs Community-Oriented Connectivity Broadband Grant Program Project. Even though, as her tests, and innumerable citizen reports indicated, the area is in fact underserved.
Udall took it all in and compared the need for “as-advertised” or better bandwidth to the needs of an ecosystem for diversity and reliability. He agreed to look into the situation. “Time is money,” he said. “It was back when things moved more slowly. It’s even more important now.”
“We are rich in intelligent people in this county,” Padgett said. “We could be richer. There are 100 Ethans who have already given up and moved away.”
Rural Broadband Numbers Are Not as Advertised