(TNS) -- MEEKER -- In this town, with no stoplights and no Starbucks, life moves slower.
Internet speeds in Meeker, a town of 2,500 in one of the most remote stretches of northwest Colorado, can reach breakneck download speeds of 1 gigabit per second. That's fast enough to capture a two-hour movie in about 30 seconds and far quicker than connection speeds most urbanites get on the Front Range.
For Hannah Turner, who spends her day on a computer processing data-heavy reports for a large bank, the lightning online speed in Meeker -- the result of a multimillion-dollar initiative by Rio Blanco County to upgrade its internet infrastructure -- is what has kept her from fleeing to the Front Range.
"It was definitely the deciding factor," the 24-year-old Colorado State University grad said as she settled behind two laptops and a pair of monitors in her small house in downtown Meeker. "I have to have better internet."
Rio Blanco's experiment with broadband is the exception in rural Colorado. Long distances, rugged topography and scattered population centers across most of Colorado's rural areas translate to high costs in getting broadband service into homes and businesses.
The state's broadband map shows vast stretches of the state -- especially on the Eastern Plains and across the mountains -- with slow to no internet service. Meanwhile, the urban Interstate 25 corridor is lit up in speedy green.
It's a digital dichotomy that feeds the "have-have not" narrative that in many ways marks the relationship between urban and rural Colorado, in which the booming data-rich economies of Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins seem a world away from the technological crawl of far-flung Mancos, Campo and Walden.
"It's not so much that rural America is left out," said Jeff Devere, IT director for Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. "It's that rural America is not in a position to compete."
Broadband today is far more than just smoothly streaming TV shows and movies on Netflix or Hulu. The lack of high-speed connections can hamper how efficiently and effectively schools, hospitals and technology-driven businesses operate. Reliable broadband can mean the difference between residents staying or leaving.
Cody Miell, who runs a video production business in Rocky Ford, said his connection speed is insufficient for the large video files he sends to clients. And it seriously lacks the bandwidth he used to get in Denver.
"It takes forever to upload big files," Miell said. "I can manage it for now, but it is not what I need."
As rural populations continue to shrink in Colorado -- parents often see their children leave for college and take jobs on the Front Range or out of state -- the worry in the state's hinterlands mounts. While broadband isn't the only factor in a person's decision on where to live, it can no longer be ignored, said Eric Bergman, policy director for Colorado Counties Inc.
"This has gone from being a luxury item to being a necessity," he said.
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The Colorado Broadband Office estimates that 77 percent of rural households in the state have access to broadband today -- defined by the federal government as 25 megabits per second download and 3 mbps upload. It's a share the office would like to see reach 100 percent by 2020.
Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of the broadband office, said robust internet is vital to making Colorado's smaller towns and cities economically vibrant and bringing back those in decline.
"I 100 percent believe that having access to broadband service can be an economic catalyst for these communities," he said. "It's the 21st-century version of providing everyone with electricity or phone service."
Slow, spotty, expensive
Things weren't always this good in Rio Blanco County, where about 6,500 people are scattered across 3,200 square miles stretching from the Flat Tops Wilderness to the Utah state line. A little more than a year ago, the county was like much of the rest of rural Colorado when it comes to broadband -- slow, spotty and expensive.
"It was just horrible," Turner said in July, showing off today's lickety-split download speed of 94 mbps and a blazing upload speed of 97.75 mbps on her laptop.
The potential economic heft of robust internet service was something the county took to heart a few years ago. Shawn Bolton, a Rio Blanco County commissioner, said the news that an oil and gas giant was considering a move from Rangely to Vernal, Utah, for better internet prompted the county to tackle its online deficiencies.
It laid 25 miles of fiber-optic cable in Meeker and Rangely each, put up eight towers across the county to shoot 25 mbps of wireless broadband to outlying residents and contracted with a network operator and two local internet service providers for day-to-day operations.
The county is in the final stages of making the primary towers operational and will add relay towers next year for even more coverage. The goal: Give up to 98 percent of Rio Blanco residents access to broadband.
Blake Mobley, Rio Blanco County's IT director, calls the $12 million project a "perfect storm" of funding, partnerships with private-sector web providers and buy-in from the community. The county scored $3.6 million in grants from Colorado's Department of Local Affairs and used money from its reserves, fed largely by oil and gas severance-tax revenues, to pay for the project.
The monthly cost for those subscribing to Rio Blanco's network runs from $45 to $70, depending on connection speed, Mobley said.
"It makes us a very viable option for telecommuters," he said.
Those telecommuters include Turner, who was able to buy a house in Meeker for just over $100,000 and fills her truck up with gas maybe once or twice a month.
"It's not expensive to live here," she said. "And taxes are not bad."
Bolton said when he got connected to Rio Blanco's network earlier this year, he could suddenly download bid documents for his construction business instead of having to drive 40 miles to Rifle to get a good connection.
"It was like someone walked in and turned the lights on," he said.
"A topography issue"
But the perfect storm in Rio Blanco County is not easy to replicate in other parts of Colorado.
Jared Riesterer, left, and Jackson Federico, right, both tower technicians for Advanced Wireless Solutions, work to make repairs on the dish on the Pollard cell tower high off the ground in rural Rio Blanco County on July 12, 2017 near Meeker.
The physical task of bringing internet to far reaches of the state is doable, whether the job is undertaken by a large telecom firm such as CenturyLink or one of dozens of tiny rural phone companies that operate around the state, but often it's not cost-effective to serve a tiny cluster of homes tucked into a hillside 20 miles from the closest town.
"The distances out on the Eastern Plains are just so large, and in the mountains, it's more of a topography issue," Neal-Graves said. "The issue is cost, in terms of building out infrastructure to these communities."
It often leads to monthly costs in rural areas that go far beyond what city dwellers pay -- prices that can be prohibitive to residents living paycheck to paycheck or on a fixed income.
In Custer County, which butts up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains west of Pueblo, internet service has long been troublesome. The county is looking at installing a half-dozen towers to provide fixed wireless broadband to its 4,500 residents, but the $2 million price tag is a major barrier. Charles Bogle, president of the Custer County Economic Development Corporation, said his county doesn't have Rio Blanco County's energy dollars.
"We have a real issue with our topography down here," Bogle said "The model that makes sense for the big internet service providers is to concentrate on the bigger population centers."
Directly west of Custer County, over the Sangre de Cristos' towering 14,000-foot peaks, Saguache County faces some of the same challenging dynamics. In July, online publication fivethirtyeight.com pegged the county as having "the worst internet in America," with only 5.6 percent of adults estimated to have broadband.
It's a dubious distinction that doesn't entirely surprise Bart Weller. The IT consultant lives just north of Saguache County, in Gunnison County's Crystal River Valley.
In Marble, which Weller has called home for a year, he formed the Marble Broadband Coalition in hopes of improving internet service for the town's several hundred residents. The coalition includes representatives from the Marble Charter School, the marble quarry in town and the town's board of trustees.
"It's a pretty severe constraint," Weller said of the valley's internet service.
Marble is more than 6 miles from the closest fiber-optic loop, meaning Weller has had to resort to satellite broadband service, which he says is slow and unreliable. He ends up driving 40 minutes to Carbondale to download software for his job.
"I could never have done that kind of downloading at my home office," he said.
Pokey download speeds plague schools as much as they do businesses. Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said there are two primary issues with rural school connectivity: bandwidth and cost.
"Their computers are crashing when they are doing the online testing -- their networks can't accommodate live streaming," she said.
And high-speed service in rural areas can cost multiples of what prices are in populated parts of the state.
"Their budgets absolutely cannot afford those inflated costs," Murphy said of small, far-flung school districts.
Colorado launched the EAGLE-Net Alliance in 2010, harnessing a $100.6 million federal grant to connect rural schools throughout the state to its high-speed network. But after years of allegations of financial mismanagement and a suspension of its grant funding, the effort derailed. EAGLE-Net was officially dissolved in June, although its network is still operational.
Danelle Berg, Otero County economic development director, said even if school districts are on a high-speed network, nothing guarantees that students have good connections at home. She said some students in the Rocky Ford School District, in southeast Colorado, must scramble in the evenings to get their computers and other devices hooked up so they can do their school work.
"They're going to a Walmart parking lot or outside a closed library and doing their homework where Wi-Fi is free," Berg said.
In a broadband strategy report prepared for Baca, Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero and Prowers counties, the consultancy firm Tilson noted that the lack of good home-based internet access in Colorado's southeast corner has limited students' abilities to efficiently use their school-sanctioned Chromebooks.
The report, released in August, said the inability to afford broadband at home was one of the major issues stopping its widespread adoption across the six-county area.
For home school mom Elisabeth Erickson-Noe, her family's remote location -- on a 29,000-acre ranch where rural Otero, Bent and Las Animas counties come together 20 miles south of La Junta -- puts her in a virtual internet dead spot.
Dial-up is too slow, satellite is too limited and the wireless tower north of her property isn't within line-of-sight of her home. So Erickson-Noe uses her cellphone as a hot spot for the internet. But that quickly has her bumping up against the limits of her data plan.
"We can't do any live-streaming because we don't have enough data," she said.
And that means lesson plans for her 7-year-old daughter are limited. Erickson-Noe wants to show her daughter foreign language videos and have her do interactive online science and art programs, but she's not always able.
"Having better internet would be a great bridge," said Erickson-Noe, whose ranch -- filled with radiant sunflowers and cholla cacti -- is more than a mile off the area's lone highway.
Nearly 500 miles away, Devere, the IT chief at Colorado Northwestern Community College, said a high-speed network on the Rangely campus has gone from a wish-list item to a must-have. Students come from all over the region to take advantage of CNCC's membership in the Scenic West Athletic Conference and to attend classes in the college's dental hygiene and aviation program, he said.
In a town that doesn't even have a Walmart or a McDonald's, Devere said many students rely on the web for entertainment, studies and a connection to friends back home.
"The thing students who live here need is access to the wider world," he said. "The lack of internet speed is one of our biggest complaints."
Not for long, however. Starting this fall, CNCC will plug into Rio Blanco County's broadband network, bringing 200 mbps to this campus of 250 students. That heavy bandwidth should future-proof the college for years to come, especially as increasingly data-hungry technologies hit the market, Devere said.
"We're going to see virtual reality and augmented reality," he said, walking along rows of dental chairs that are used to teach the hygienists of the future. "We're going to have to stay competitive with our technology -- and for a rural community college, that's a big challenge."
That challenge exists for rural hospitals, too, especially as telemedicine and remote doctor visits take off. Pioneers Medical Center in Meeker is in the enviable position of being able to tap into Rio Blanco County's network.
The hospital has seen welcome improvements in the speed at which it can send high-resolution images to the radiology department at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. What used to take four hours or more sending a 3-D mammogram to Valley View now takes 20 minutes.
Even within rural areas of Colorado, there are vast differences in internet service and quality levels, said Pete Kirchhof, executive vice president of the Colorado Telecommunications Association. He likens the situation to a doughnut, where the center hole represents small towns and cities with significantly better online access than surrounding ranches and farms.
David Shipley, general manager of Rye and South Park Telephone Co., said the rollout of electricity service a century ago wasn't an overnight thing -- it first lit up the cities before charging up the farms.
There are signs of hope. CenturyLink this year expanded high-speed internet service to thousands of rural Colorado households and businesses. And Echostar Corp. and ViaSat each recently launched a satellite that will provide better speeds to rural areas.
The Colorado Broadband Deployment Board this summer announced it is accepting applications for infrastructure grants through Sept. 12, with $9.4 million available to be distributed this cycle. Last year, about $2 million went to 4,700 households and 175 businesses in 10 rural counties to help improve broadband access and bring down costs.
But just how fast the urban-rural divide on broadband is bridged remains to be seen.
"Hopefully, it gets there," Shipley said. "My gut is that it will take many years for the rural space to catch up with the urban space. The majority of the community has to get behind it."
©2017 The Denver Post Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.