Plan for high-speed Internet in county runs into a delay

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It’s not quite as simple as E=MC2. (Economic prosperity equals Montezuma County 2.0.) Time, that ever-elusive fourth dimension, simply ran out.

A broadband system delivering internet services at the speed of light to all residents won’t be coming to Montezuma County as fast as hoped, but enthusiasm for building its infrastructure remains high among proponents.

For several months the county commissioners have been promoting broadband availability as a powerful economic stimulus as well as an essential tool for future generations, and voted last month to place three questions key to its creation on the November ballot, including approval of a one-cent sales tax.

But at the end of July, time to address some of the more complex issues involved had slipped away.

For months the county, city, Montezuma Community Economic Development Association, and other entities had been working hard to get the tax issue onto the already-lengthy November ballot, buoyed by the unanimity of support from all the county’s major governmental entities.

But then at their meeting July 25, the commissioners heard from their attorney, John Baxter, that it would be extremely difficult to prepare the necessary ballot language by the state Department of Revenue’s deadline at the end of the month.

Now the sales-tax question will now have to wait until at least 2017. It could be on the next general-election ballot, or sooner via a special election.

Voters will be still be asked in November for permission to construct the broadband infrastructure through a process known as “opting out of SB 152,” a state law the prohibits local entities from providing internet services. Many other communities in the state have already taken this path, since the law is widely seen as favoring telecom giants, especially in more remote areas where little or no competition exists.

The commissioners approved the wording of the “opting out” ballot question in July, but some issues related to the sales-tax question and the composition of the board that would manage the broadband system are yet to be settled.

The county would only build and operate the actual physical infrastructure and either charge a user fee to competing IS providers such as Verizon and CenturyLink, or form an agreement with one IS provider for exclusive use for a number of years. (Farmers Telephone in Pleasant View has been mentioned as one possible partner in such a public/private venture.)

In an interview with the Free Press Aug. 1, Commission Chairman Larry Don Suckla conceded the commissioners may have been trying to do too much too quickly, and said the timing needs to be right. “There’s no sense in doing a sales-tax proposal if it fails,” he said.

He reiterated his conviction that building a broadband system is essential to the county’s long-term economic health.

“We believe in it,” Suckla said, while noting that there remain many skeptics (some of whom were highly vocal at a recent town-hall meeting). “I’ve had a lot of phone calls, met a lot of people that were very concerned about what we’re trying to do. After visiting with them they were more open to the idea, they were just wishing it could be done in a different way.”

Still, he heard no suggestions on alternate means of funding the project.

“I’m not sure there is a different path than the sales tax,” he said. “They’re very concerned about government controlling it versus private enterprise, but I don’t know how to pacify those people.

“I do know this: If we rely on private enterprise to get the best broadband in this community to all residents, then we’re going to be waiting forever, because it won’t happen.”

At the commission’s Aug. 1 meeting, OFS, a company that specializes in manufacturing fiber-optic cable and designing broadband systems, made a detailed presentation on what building the infrastructure would involve.

OFS engineer Jeff Bush displayed a Google Earth-based map that showed how fiber cable would be strung throughout the county, mostly on power poles but underground in some areas.

Bush reassured the commissioners that a fiber-optic system would not become obsolete in the foreseeable future, one of the chief concerns they’d heard from skeptics. The equipment that transmits signals through the glass fiber is constantly being improved, he said, but the fiber itself does not deteriorate and is likely to remain the fastest delivery method for many years.

Suckla told the Free Press it is essential to demonstrate to consumers that the cost of using the broadband system would be significantly less than what they currently pay for Internet, phone and TV.

And the commissioners believe county- wide broadband infrastructure would jump-start the economy. “I believe 100 percent that putting broadband throughout the county would put us a notch up – put us in a different category to prosper down the road.”

Some older residents who don’t use the Internet have come out strongly against the plan, Suckla said, “but I believe our younger generations, especially the kids, won’t be able to do without it.”

Suckla said the proposed one-cent sales tax, which would exclude food and agricultural products and equipment, is conservatively expected to raise about $1.5 million a year. It most likely would sunset when revenue bonds used to finance the system were paid off. User fees would pay for operational and maintenance costs.

Suckla said the commission is opposed to having an independent authority similar to a special district managing the system, but favors a five-member board appointed by the county commission.

“Your current board is 100 percent against an authority versus [an appointed] commission only because another idea hasn’t presented itself.”

Suckla said he hopes voters will pass the SB 152 opt-out question that will be on the ballot this fall, because it’s a necessary precursor to the other measures. “If we lose 152, we’ll be one of the first counties that doesn’t get that passed.

“In my 3 1/2 years as commissioner, I’ve never seen so many people come off the sidelines and confront me on what we’re doing. We have a lot of bright people in this community and they’re standing up and speaking.

“Hopefully if we get it all sorted out we’ll get it done, because I believe, and a lot of people do, that this will be good for future generations.”

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