Community Comes Together to Bring High-Speed Internet to Remote Colorado Town

If too many people at this town's school used computers simultaneously, the previous Internet system timed out and reverted to the speed of a dial-up connection -- but that is no longer the case.

by Debbie Kelley, The Gazette (TNS) / October 27, 2014

There's no gas station in the remote mountain town of Guffey, about 60 miles west of Colorado Springs, but there is a post office with 420 boxes, a library, a school, an auto repair shop, three restaurants and now, high-speed Internet for all.

"It's huge," said resident Kim McAlear.

Life hasn't exactly been stuck in the Stone Age, but some say it was close. Or at least, not the 21st century.

Previously, if too many people used computers at the same time the rudimentary satellite system that provided Internet timed out and reverted to the speed of a dial-up connection for the 39 students at the Guffey Community Charter School.

The setup was so antiquated that to take required state standardized tests, students had to be bused 55 miles to Fairplay, which everyone says made for a harrowing trip if there was snow.

Nearly a year ago, leaders at the Guffey Community Charter School decided enough was enough. When a 20-acre parcel of hilly land east of the school became available last November, principal and administrator Pam Moore figured it was time to rally the troops.

And that's the story within this story. The pioneering spirit of the community produced a gung-ho push that raised $55,000. Grants came through from the Park County Conservation Trust Fund, El Pomar Foundation and the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Co. A local rancher pitched in $5,000.

Students in the K-8 public charter school did fundraisers, such as making their popular fire-starter cups out of sawdust and paraffin wax.

And, then, Moore said, small donations of $10, $25 and $50 trickled in.

"The town is rural, and the folks that live here are doing their best, and we had a lot of those small donations that were really meaningful because people work really hard to get that kind of money," she said.

The donations bought the $40,000 piece of land, which the school acquired in February from a private resident, and solar technology to power the equipment. A $15,000 anonymous donation paid for 20 new computers.

The school had a huge satellite dish in front of it when it opened in 1999 and has tried to keep up with technology, Moore said, but "we came to a point where we were totally limited as far as the next steps."

Previous attempts to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to the area failed, due to the lack of a direct line of sight to a telecommunications tower and service providers' unwillingness to find a way to make it work.

South Park Telephone Co., which is based in Hartsel and specializes in rural customers, agreed to expand its services to Guffey and built a tower and solar shed to house the equipment on the highest point of the land the school bought. A local excavator groomed the road. Park County helped with permitting and other site particulars.

"At the end of the day, voila, they are in the 21st century, and this is the way it should be done," said David Shipley, business manager for South Park Telephone Co.

The system went live in mid-August, right before school started for the year. So far, so good.

"We wanted to make sure we were able to provide it for the school and not jeopardize the bandwidth before we started selling it to the public," Shipley said.

On Oct. 1, the company allowed residents to sign up for high-speed Internet service.

"We've had a fantastic response," he said.

Still, it's a gamble for the company.

"From a return on investment, the numbers just don't work. But some things we do in life can't be all about the money, it's got to be about doing the right thing," Shipley said. "This was one of those projects where there were no hidden agendas. Everybody's agenda was the same - get the project done."

The benefit for students is worth every penny, Moore said.

"Kids are delighted to have an opportunity to learn like all other kids in more urban environments," she said. "The things that some kids take for granted our kids cherish because we have families that don't have television and can't afford to purchase Internet service. So the school has become the hub of the community."

McAlear, who has two students at Guffey Community Charter School, said she cried at the recent ribbon cutting ceremony at the tower high above the town.

"We live out here because we want to, but there are definite drawbacks. Our kids not having access to the educational resources that other kids have is one of the big ones," she said.

"The fact that it's not an issue anymore is amazing. It's such a big heart for such a small community."

©2014 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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