RIDGWAY – Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett opened Monday’s Operation Linkup conference on “Paths to Progress – Rural Broadband Innovation,” with a personal story.
“At home this morning I checked the speed on my 3G modem and found it was downloading at .08 megabits per second. On the national rating scale, that’s a double F minus. At the office later, where we have DSL, I checked again, and it was still an F on the national scale, a D on the international scale. We have a problem in our area if we want to achieve our goal of healthy people, healthy minds, healthy economy.”
And Padgett repeated a tale she has seen over and over in these mountain counties: “A television producer who used to live on Log Hill Mesa had to relocate to Denver because of our lack of bandwidth.” He couldn’t afford to send or receive film files at less than 1/100th the speed of most urban systems.
An even more graphic example was cited by the day’s first speaker, Frank Ohrtman of the Governor’s Office of Information Technology; he recalled a complaint from a citizen in another rural Colorado county who “had to stream his Netflix starting on Wednesday for a Saturday night viewing.”
Bandwidth. Broadband. Download and upload speeds. Fiber optic. Microwave. Wireless. The IT terms flew around Ridgway’s 4H Event Center, where about 50 representatives of telecommunications companies, local governments, schools districts and libraries, industry consultants, and just plain citizens gathered to discuss new ways to get the communications services they, and future users, need.
Ohrtman is tasked by the OIT with helping communities form Local Tech Planning Teams to “take direct action to improve community broadband services.” He has created 14 teams so far around the state.
The idea, he said Monday, is “to break the cycle of dependence” on top-down solutions to limited bandwidth. “Do I have to wait for somebody on Wall Street to decide that it will be profitable to invest, in Ridgway, say? Do we have to wait for somebody in Congress to say rural communities deserve better connectivity?”
The short answer is no, Ohrtman said, if you follow the three mantras: “All solutions are local; no one size fits all; and it doesn’t take millions of dollars to bring four gigabits per second to your downtown.”
“Isn’t it a chicken-and-egg thing?” asked Padgett, stating a common conundrum. “How do we get the fiber lit, so we can attract the businesses, when the demand [the business] has to be there already in order to light the fiber?”
She was referring to fiber optic (glass) cable, the fastest, highest-capacity pipeline by far, much faster and broader than wireless or copper cable.
Miles of fiber were trenched in Montrose and Ouray counties about a dozen years ago, but it hasn’t been “lit.” Padgett referred to it as the “dark fiber along Hwy 550, maybe even along Hwy 62, even County Road 1.”
“I call it ‘the fiber graveyard,’” Ohrtman said, indicating the situation is sadly common.
“Why not light the fiber” that already exists? Padgett asked.
“Because nobody knows who put it in, who owns it anymore,” ” Ohrtman said, incredibly. “Companies go bankrupt. Records are spotty. There is no map!”
The Town of Silverton, county seat of San Juan County, doesn’t even have “dark fiber.” It has no fiber optic at all, even though Qwest (now CenturyLink) contracted with the state to provide fiber to every county seat in Colorado. San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay was in Ridgway Monday as a session co-host. San Juan County sued to get Qwest to complete the line from Cascade Village, near Durango Mountain Resort, the final 16 miles to Silverton. The county lost its case before the Public Utilities Commission. “Qwest’s president Chuck Ward came to Silverton and made fun of us,” said McKay, still bitter.
Silverton’s primitive bandwidth is so limited that in summer, when the population swells with each tourist train from Durango, phone calls are dropped and sales are lost, as credit cards can’t be run. Forget about sending big document files or downloading a movie.
The solution, Ohrtman said, is in gathering together Community Anchor Institutions, CAIs, made up of schools, town governments, libraries, “anything that’s tax-supported, plus hospitals,” and looking for local solutions. Go to www.colorado.gov/oit/broadband, he suggested, and also mentioned two pieces of legislation now being considered in the state legislature, SB 129 and SB 157. The first would identify which communities “really have ‘stinky’ Internet,” Ohrtman said. The second would make grants or loans to service providers and/or CAIs to improve their bandwidth.
Cost is, of course, a big hurdle for rural places. But the answer might not necessarily be expensive fiber optics. And he cited a Wolf Creek Pass solution: “Fiber would have cost $37 million; they used microwave instead over the pass at a cost of $300,000.”
Other innovative ideas included creating Carrier Neutral Locations. Ohrtman has helped develop CNLs in Cortez, Durango and Salida. And “Steamboat’s is coming.” For the price of a room in a city services building, for example, plus some air conditioning and a backup power supply, municipalities can be “middle-mile providers,” while private companies, including wireless and cable, compete to provide the “last mile” of service to customers, governments, businesses, residents.
Solutions are out there, Ohrtman said, despite chaos in the myriad options. But Ohrtman seems energized by the disjointed possibilities. And he was backed up by Wendell Pryor of the Chafee County (Salida) Economic Development Corporation, which is implementing a CNL, and Operation Linkup co-founder Patrick Swonger, who spoke about EAGLE-Net, a cost-sharing cooperative bringing fiber networks to schools across the state.
Could EAGLE-Net be a model for the rest of us?
“How do we keep our young people here?” Padgett asked rhetorically. “Eighty-two percent of the population of Colorado lives on the Front Range. They shouldn’t have 100 percent of the opportunity, too.”