What are the challenges?
Where do we go from here?
Candidates for local public office in Montezuma County along with other citizens chewed on these pressing concerns Feb. 20 at a presentation sponsored by the City of Cortez.
High-speed internet service has – on and off – been a hot topic locally for the past two years, ever since the county commissioners raised the possibility of building a $40 million system to bring broadband to county residents – even in remote areas – to encourage economic development. After an initial wave of enthusiasm, however, they cooled on the idea when opposition to a proposed sales tax to pay for the system’s construction became apparent even before they had decided to put it before voters.
About 50 people attended the forum, perhaps a sign that the flagging interest of the public could be rekindled, and several community members shared their perspectives on broadband.
The value of high-speed internet for local businesses – health care and hospital services, retirement homes and social services, nonprofits, business management services, information technology and education – was tossed around.
Broadband is an essential part of health care in rural areas these days, stressed Kent Rogers, CEO of Southwest Memorial Hospital. He explained the advent of telemedicine has greatly expanded patients’ options, since they can now consult health-care specialists via the Internet.
In addition, “All acute-care providers are connected,” Rogers said, and can share clinical data to help with diagnosis and treatment. But often such medical records include various imagery, and doctors’ ability to use them efficiently “all depends on the transmission speed.”
Cheryl Beene of Renew, the area’s battered women’s shelter, said they had gotten broadband just a week prior to the meeting, and “it has been phenomenal.”
“We work with people whose lives are in danger,” Beene said, and broadband is invaluable in finding services for clients calling for help immediately. She explained that improved internet services also mean that her staff can attend training seminars via the web.
Grant applications for the nonprofit can now be submitted online, she said, and record-keeping, including their client data base, can be kept electronically.
Carol Glover echoed the importance of high-speed internet for her business, C&G Healthcare, which manages eight nursing homes in rural Colorado. Around-the-clock communication with doctors, social workers, and corporate headquarters is essential, she said. Glover added that they also are required to use certain software and keep detailed records, so that “it’s a matter of meeting the legal regulations” necessary to stay in business.
Education and health care are obviously important services in any community, but local businesses can also suffer or succeed depending upon whether or not there is high speed internet available. Jason Strickland, the IT director at Osprey, explained the company sells products to 70 countries, and that in addition to their recently built headquarters in Cortez Osprey has an office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This means they are a 24-hour business, which Strickland says means “all our services and products need to be available quickly and effectively.”
Osprey’s owners are committed to the region, but the fact that the City of Cortez worked with them to provide fiber optic for their new headquarters was “absolutely critical” in order for the company to stay in Montezuma County. “Without connectivity, here we lose half of our services,” said Strickland. He added that Osprey would love to be able to tell other businesses that “you can be as successful here as us,” but that is contingent upon access to high-speed internet.
Lack of internet access was mentioned by several community members, including Juan Diego, also of Osprey, and Warren Gaspar, retiree, who said internet access dictated their decisions as to where and whether to buy property in Montezuma County. Diego said he had to move twice because his residence had no high-speed internet access. Cortez City Manager Shane Hale noted that 25 percent of county residents have home businesses, many dependent upon internet.
Three junior students from Montezuma-Cortez High School explained how they needed online access to complete assignments, and mentioned a friend whose studies were suffering because there was no high-speed internet at home. They also said they used the internet to take online courses from San Juan College in Farmington, something many high school students are doing with increasing frequency in order to improve their chances for college admission.
The forum echoed much of what was covered in the September 2017 Free Press cover story on broadband, confirming that high-speed internet is now a necessity, and without it, the county could lose business, residents, jobs, and economic stability. Analogies were made in this regard to both railroad and electric services, in that the communities without those services were indeed, “left behind” as people relocated to areas with those services. Hale said, “We have to think of the long term, otherwise we are going to leave the community in the dark.’’
Miriam Gillow-Wiles of the Southwest Council of Governments explained a bit more about the economics of providing broadband to a rural community. Topography, low population density, distances between communities, combined with a monopoly on telecom markets by a few corporate giants all contribute to the situation in the Four Corners area, meaning that there is no return on investment for private companies to build out fiber-optic high-speed internet, which is extremely expensive.
Hale said an estimate done by Connect 4 a few years back brought in a price tag of $40 million to provide high-speed services to all end users in Montezuma County. The Connect 4 group, a consortium of both city and county officials and residents interested in bringing broadband to the area, was stymied by that price tag.
Cortez May Karen Sheek said that the effort was good, however, because “it started the conversation and gave us a chance to begin to talk about it.” While the city is currently undertaking a feasibility study on broadband provision to end users, Sheek said, “We need it (high speed internet) here now, and we needed it yesterday, but we’re going to have to figure out a hybrid way to make it happen.”
By referring to “hybrid way” Sheek means a public-private partnership, which city and county officials have been looking at for the past few years. Because the cost is so high, no private companies want to undertake the job. If local governments can work together to provide some of the funds for the build-out, the private companies might be more interested in working to bring in fiber-optics to the area.
“If we can work together, we can make it work for all of us,” said Sheek, adding, “If any of the entities in the county can figure it out for themselves, it moves us all forward.”
Which basically means that a mechanism for funding the build-out needs to be found. Sheek said in Montrose there was a partnership between a private telecom company and a local electric company, and the build-out cost $90 million. Meeker, Colo., provided fiber-optic to every home through a partnership that used $5 million of the county reserve funds along with $7 million of a DOLA grant.
Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said there is a county in Oregon that established a partnership between a high school and a private broadband company, and he thought this was a model worth looking into for the local region.
Greg Kemp of the Montezuma Community Economic Development Association noted the similarity to broadband now and electricity a hundred years ago, and mentioned how the federal government set up rural electric co-ops, which was successful in providing the necessary utility to rural residents. He wondered if that model would be feasible now. Gillow-Wiles and Hale both mentioned a lack of federal monies for the effort. “There is no funding at any government level to build out broadband for communities,” said Gillow-Wiles. Hale agreed, saying that many federal monies, like the Connect America Fund, for example, have big pots of money for broadband deployment, but only big providers can apply for them. “There are so many strings and snares involved with these federal programs,” said Hale.
There was general consensus that the county and cities – officials and residents – want and need high-speed internet, and that broadband is increasingly an integral and necessary piece of any kind of regional economic growth and stability for the community. The sticking point is funding.
Sheek said, “Our governments alone can’t afford to fund it. We need a groundswell of citizens who say ‘we need this.’ The citizens have to speak up.”
Gillow-Wiles took it one step further, saying “talk to your legislators,” since right now there is a bill in the state legislature to limit the speed of internet public entities can provide to end users.
“No one is coming to save us, and we are getting left behind,” Hale said.
Suckla said that the county commissioners are 100 percent behind broadband, and that he knows there is a way forward – a sentiment that Sheek and Hale share. But what model will be used to obtain the funding is as yet unknown.
“It’s not off the table,” said Suckla, “we’re just stalled a little bit.”
Sheek encouraged everyone at the meeting to get involved. “Let’s do it. We are willing. Talk to your neighbors!”