What would it take to bring broadband to Montezuma County? And do we really even need it?

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Have you ever been watching a Netflix movie on your computer, only to become frustrated because it skips and stalls due to your slow internet connection? Or maybe you do not even have the ability to stream videos or download music at home, stuck instead with a dialup connection that barely enables you to use email, if that.

Perhaps you live in town and already have high-speed internet but you pay an arm and a leg for it, since there is only one provider monopolizing the market. Or maybe you don’t even care if you have internet at home, since you rarely use it anyway, or have access at work.

Montezuma County consists of approximately 26 percent private property, averaging a population density of 12 persons per square mile. This means many residents live in rural areas where internet access, if available, can be spotty at best. The municipalities of Cortez, Dolores and Mancos have high-speed internet available to most residents, but in outlying areas of the county, some residents may not even be able to get internet services at all.

But do we need internet?

Cortez City Manager Shane Hale notes that he could talk to two Montezuma County residents in the same day, similar in socioeconomic status, age, and ethnicity, and one would say they don’t need the internet and their tax monies should not go to developing broadband access, while the other would say they’re going to leave the county if there is not high-speed internet access available soon.

Economic development is generally the reason broadband access is said to be critically needed. Jim McClain, director of IT for Montezuma County, said one of the main reasons Osprey Packs built its new headquarters in Cortez was because the city of Cortez was able to provide them with “serious high-speed” internet services.

“Without the fiber-optic, they could not have stayed,” McClain said. “If we want to move forward and attract businesses, this is one of the first requirements. From an economic standpoint it’s crucial.”

Greg Kemp, a member of the Mancos Grange and a citizen active in the effort to get broadband to residents throughout Montezuma County, agrees that high-speed internet is essential for economic development, because it increases property values. He added, “high-speed is not a luxury anymore.”

According to July 2016 census data, 20 percent of the population in Montezuma County is over the age of 65, many retired, attracted by the county’s scenic beauty and rural nature. But according to Kemp, “they’re not willing to buy property if they can’t get highspeed internet, because they want to use the internet to communicate with their families – like making video calls with the grandkids.”

Another concern for older people is medical access. “If we need specialized medical care, we can videoconference with a MD, but if you don’t have high speed internet you can’t do that,” Kemp explained. “And there are medical monitors that send information out – like Fitbit and iPhone apps – except without high-speed internet you cannot take advantage of that modern healthcare service.”

Shopping is another reason people want the faster internet. In remote rural areas, there may not be brick-and-mortar stores nearby, but purchases can be made using the internet, and even local stores have an internet presence. The Montezuma Community Economic Development Association (MCEDA) carried out a voluntary nonscientific questionnaire sent out with Empire Electric bills in April 2016. Of the 1700 respondents, 80 percent said they had internet, and of those who had it, 80 percent used it for news, information, research, purchasing and email, while over 50 percent used it to work from home.

Seventy percent used it for entertainment, and another 50 percent used it for video calls.

Two months later, in June 2016, the City of Cortez contracted with Jack Schuenemeyer, a Cortez resident with the Discovery Research Group, to conduct a scientific (random digit dialing) fiber-optic survey. According to this survey, which has more a more reliable (representative) sample than the MCEDA questionnaire, 89 percent of the respondents had internet service, but the majority were not happy with its speed, and did not believe their internet service was a good value.

Of those who did not have internet service – 11 percent of the total sample – 55 percent said they had no need for it, and 50 percent said it was too expensive.

Ninety percent of the respondents in this survey used the internet for purchasing, 91 percent for news and information, 93 percent for research, and 89 percent for emailing video and pictures, while 20 percent operated a home business. Both of these surveys indicate that most residents of Montezuma County use the internet, but are not happy with the speed, cost or availability of the service.

McClain is one of these residents, explaining, “I live out in the county, and the internet I have is horrible. I am an IT guy and I can’t work from home.” As the IT director for Montezuma County, he said he wanted to find a way to bring broadband to everybody.

But it has not been easy to accomplish. As in many rural areas across the United States, private internet service providers may not be interested in building out the infrastructure needed to get everyone connected. It is not cost-effective for a private company to put in a fiber-optic line when there may be only one or five customers who will use the service.

It can cost as much as $1 to $6 per linear foot for fiber-optic cable installation (depending on the fiber count), plus the cost of connection hardware and terminations. In urban areas where population densities are much higher than in Montezuma County, it is cost-effective for the private providers to install the cables, since they are likely to attract enough customers to ensure that their investment pays off. In rural areas, the higher profit margins are not there, which is the reason why few internet service providers offer high-speed service, or charge higher prices for the services they do offer.

The City of Cortez got on board early with high-speed internet access in 1999, receiving $1 million from the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments (SWCOG) to install fiber-optics along Main Street. The city conducted a fiber survey with residents and businesses, completed by Southwest Statistical Consulting, LLC, in March 2009 and implemented the Fiber to the Home (FTTH) project soon thereafter.

According to the city’s website, the Cortez city network currently has over 120,000 linear feet of fiber, serving “anchor institutions” such as city and county facilities, the hospital, fire district, schools, and the downtown core business district.

Phase one of the FTTH project is completed, with costs coming in around $3 million. The next step is to deploy fiber services to the outlying areas of the city, so that all residents have high-speed service, but the city does not yet have funding for this.

The towns of Dolores and Mancos also have fiber-optic cables, but not all residents can access the higher speeds, since the lines were prioritized for the anchor-institution users, including government and schools, by the funding agencies.

“The cable might go right past your house but you can’t hook into it,” Kemps said.

The Mount Lookout Grange in Mancos has begun to explore other options, and in August 2017 proposed resolutions to support public-private partnerships and net neutrality. Kemp says that in the 1930s there was a similar situation with electricity – rural areas were lagging behind urban ones in getting electric service.

President Franklin Roosevelt set up and provided the initial federal funding for rural electric co-ops, which made it economically feasible for smaller rural communities to get electricity. Kemp said something similar could happen with broadband, noting, “We would like the state-level Grange to use whatever influence they might have to encourage the federal government to get involved in this issue.”

Challenges

Obviously, funding is a big piece of the puzzle, but there are also legal and technological challenges. Colorado Senate Bill 152, passed in 2005, and supported by internet service companies, prohibited local governments from providing broadband services to “end users,” meaning regular citizens. Since Cortez began installing broadband before the law went into effect, it is exempt from the law. However, other communities had to opt out of the law before any progress towards improving internet access could be developed. Mancos opted out in 2015, while Dolores and Montezuma County did so in November 2016. But opting out of the law’s restrictions is just one step.

Other legal concerns include easements, which have to be procured in order to allow fiber-optic cable to be installed. If a cable is going to be hung from an existing electric-company pole, for example, the easement has to be secured, since it may have originally only been granted to the electric company for electric lines, not for fiber-optic cable. “It can be costly and time-consuming to perfect these easements, which is another hurdle for us to address,” says City Manager Hale.

The technology is also not simple. As mentioned above, the installation of fiber-optic cable is costly, and may not be feasible in all areas of rural Montezuma County due to geography and distance. The engineering estimate to bring broadband via fiber-optic cable to all county residents came in at $39 million. County commissioners Larry Don Suckla, Keenan Ertel, and James Lambert, all supportive of high-speed internet for all citizens in the county, last year discussed a 1 percent sales tax to fund broadband and hoped to send the matter to voters in November 2016, along with the opt-out measure. The tax would have been earmarked for high-speed internet, would sunset after a specific date, and would have generated $1.7 million to $2 million a year. However, after pushback from some citizens who questioned the need for such a tax for broadband, the sales tax did not end up on the ballot, leaving the county and municipalities still in need of funds. The county did pass the opt-out measure.

Because of this, other ideas have been floated, including a combination of wireless and fiber-optic. In this scenario, fiber-optic cable could be installed in some locations, while others would have wireless transmitters attached to existing towers or poles. A wireless line-of-sight option using microwave technologies connecting to a wireless node is currently available with VelocityNet, but only to customers in certain locations. Another option, currently available with Farmer’s Telephone, is satellite internet access, but it requires a hefty installation package investment including satellite dish and cables.

PPP’s to the rescue?

When Montezuma County voters opted out of SB 152, they also allowed their elected officials to engage in public-private partnerships to obtain high-speed internet. This strategy is currently being pursued, since it addresses the question McClain asks: “What is it that the county can provide that’s not going to break the county, without adding sales tax or being a burden on the taxpayers?”

A public-private partnership allows the county to partner with a private service provider. Currently Connect4 and the county are discussing partnership options with the five internet service providers that responded to an RFP (request for proposals) sent out earlier this year. The five companies are Mammoth Networks, Data Safe Services, Farmer’s Telephone, Foresight, and Zuma.com.

McClain said he’s setting up meetings with each of these companies to discuss what a PPP would look like. He’d like to spend a couple of hours in interviews with the companies and local leaders involved in Connect4 to determine the details of a partnership that could be affordable for the county and also desirable for the private company.

Hale explained: “The two scenarios are, either we find a private partner that really adds value that allows us to deploy without putting in high taxpayer money, or we find someone who is willing to invest in the infrastructure. We want to do an open-access model. The idea would be everybody contributes something to make it happen.”

Cooperation is key to this strategy. Mc- Clain commented, “In order to make anything work, everyone has to be together – all the communities, the leaders – they have to work together to accomplish a goal. It really is a question of finding the right partner. It’s a pretty big project, so it has to be someone that can handle the project.”

Kemp is passionate about this issue. “High-speed internet is not a luxury anymore, it really is a necessity, and people are beginning more and more to realize that.”

Hale agreed: “More and more, we’re talking about fiber as a utility. Maybe 10 years ago it was something nice to have, but the way society and technology and the world has moved, it has become more of a utility. At some point it’s going to be, either have it or be left behind.”

Residents of Montezuma County are encouraged to let their local representatives know their sentiments. Because, as Hale said: “Any local official is just working for the taxpayer – if there’s really a majority of them who want us to be more active, then we will.”


Some internet-related definitions

Broadband

In January 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined that only connections with download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) or faster will qualify as broadband. Montezuma county officials working to provide county residents with broadband use the FCC definition. According to the FCC Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report of December 2016, the average speed in the US is 39 Mbps.

Colorado SB-152

A bill passed in Colorado in 2005, which defined high speed internet as 256 kbps, and prohibited local governments from using taxpayer funds to improve local broadband infrastructure and services. The law was passed with the support of large telecom providers, and only allowed local municipalities and counties to build out telecommunications infrastructure to other government entities, such as town halls, county offices, police, fire, ambulance, as well as schools, libraries and hospitals. It did not allow local governments to provide service to “end users” or to engage in Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) intended to provide broadband services. In November 2016, Montezuma County citizens voted to opt out of this law, thus enabling county government to provide broadband services. To date, over 100 Colorado municipalities, counties and school districts have opted out of this bill, including Durango, Telluride, Cortez, Mancos, Bayfield, Delta, Ignacio, Ophir, Ridgeway, as well as La Plata, San Juan and Archuleta counties.

Connect 4

A local group formed in March 2015 for the purpose of getting affordable county-wide broadband services to all residents of Montezuma County. It consists of government leaders from Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, Montezuma County Commissioners, the Ute Tribe, as well as members of MCEDA, city and county officials involved in Information Technology and public works, as well as interested citizens. www.connect4.org

DSL

Digital Subscriber Line, which refers to a set of technologies used to transmit digital data over telephone lines. Generally speeds are lower, with average ranges up to 768 Kbps, and some companies refer to this as “high speed.”

Fiber-optic cable

This is the fastest high-speed data transmission medium. The cables contain a core that consists of tiny strands of glass or plastic fibers thin as a human hair, which carry light beams enabling data to be transmitted via rapid pulses of light, at the speed of light. The receiving end of the cable translates the light pulses into binary values which are read by computers. The fiber-optic cables are thinner and lighter-weight than copper cable, non, flammable and subject to less electromagnetic interference than copper. There are two types of optical fibers: single-mode which can only transmit one signal per fiber, and multi-mode which has a larger core and can transmit multiple signals per fiber.

High-speed internet

This term is used in comparison to dial-up data-transfer speeds. Dial-up internet speed is 768 kilobytes per second, so anything over this speed can be called “high-speed” internet. Generally, private companies determine this definition according to the location and the competition in the area they are providing services, and in this case “high speed” means faster than the average. Services are provided via cable, satellite and wireless connections. In Montezuma County, companies have speeds ranging from 512 kbs to over 25 mbs, some up to 100 mbs. Note: download speeds may be different than upload speeds.

Kilo bits, Mega bits and Giga bits

These are measures of speed. Data transfer speed over internet networks is calculated in terms of bits per second: kilobits (kb small case “k” and small case “b”). The higher the kbps i.e. more the bits transferred per second, more the speed, faster the network/connection. k stands for 1000 1 kbps (kilo bits per second) = 1000 bits per second 1 Mbps (mega bits per second) = 1000 kilo bits per second. 1 Gbps (giga bits per second) = 1,000 mega bits per second. These are often easily confused with KiloBytes (KBS) MegaBytes (MBS) and GigaBytes (MBS), which are measures of file size — how much space a file measures on a hard disk. These terms relate to data storage and file size, while the “bits” refer to speed of transfer of files.

Open Access Network

The open access model allows multiple service providers to compete over the same network at wholesale prices. It’s a business model strategy applied to internet and telecomm services. “The primary purpose of any open access policy is to create service-based competition by allowing a competing provider to share in the use of an incumbent’s facilities.” (Glenn A. Woroch, 2002)

Public-Private Partnerships (PPP)

The PPP Knowledge Lab defines a PPP as “a long-term contract between a private party and a government entity, for providing a public asset or service, in which the private party bears significant risk and management responsibility, and remuneration is linked to performance.”

SCAN

Southwest Colorado Access Network — regional network funded by SWCCOG to improve broadband services in Montezuma and Dolores counties.

SWCCOG or COG

The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments was awarded a $3 million grant in 2010 to implement a high capacity network for regional governments. The project intended to complete “lastmile” fiber and wireless infrastructure in designated communities and create a region-wide government network to connect these towns, cities and college campuses. Participants included Ignacio, Cortez, Durango, Dolores, Silverton, Dove Creek, Mancos, Rico, Bayfield, Pagosa Springs, and Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, and San Juan counties; and Southwest Colorado Community College.

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