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Rural Communities Taking Action to Accelerate Broadband

In Colorado, Fort Morgan invested $6 million of its own money to build a fiber-optic network after years of hearing from residents and businesses struggling to make do with inadequate Internet service.

by Judith Kohler, The Denver Post / January 2, 2020
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(TNS) — Anne Clyncke, who lives near Yampa in south Routt County, Colo., sometimes has to go to the library to use the computer for her job if her family has hit the cap on their satellite internet service.

On Colorado’s Eastern Plains, the city of Fort Morgan invested $6 million of its own money to build a fiber-optic network after years of hearing from residents and businesses struggling to make do with inadequate internet service.

The two scenarios underscore that the digital divide isn’t just between urban and rural. Outside the Interstate 25 and 70 corridors, where great distances and low populations make providing internet more expensive, there can be wide variations of service and coverage.

State officials say 87% of rural Colorado has access to broadband, but that number comes with asterisks. State and federal officials acknowledge that more precise mapping is needed to pinpoint which areas need to be brought up to speed.

“You can look at maps and say, ‘Oh, this community is served.’ Well, the community within a quarter mile of the community center may be served, but the folks outside of that are either underserved or completely unserved,” said Nate Walowitz, the regional broadband program director at the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

The council is among the public agencies across Colorado leveraging state and federal grants and building partnerships to deliver the reliable, high-speed internet they agree is a necessity, not a luxury, in the 21st century. They say up-to-date service is key to growing the economy in rural communities and luring people looking to escape the congestion and rising costs of the Front Range and mountain hot spots.

In Routt County, where places such as Steamboat Springs face pressure from growing populations and high prices, it would make sense for people to relocate to some of the smaller outlying communities, such as Yampa and Oak Creek and Hayden, said Tim Corrigan, a county commissioner.

“But without adequate broadband service, it’s a nonstarter,” he said.

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have spent billions of dollars nationwide to extend broadband internet to outlying areas. In Colorado, state agencies have allocated tens of millions of dollars in local grants to build out high-speed networks.

The state distributed $20.2 million in mineral severance tax revenues from 2013-18, said Greg Winkler, a regional manager with the Department of Local Affairs. Local governments matched the state funds, boosting the total to $40.4 million, he added.

“Our executive director as of August of this year has allocated $5 million a year for the next five years, so that’s another $25 million,” Winkler said.

The money will go for so-called “middle-mile” development, or the fiber network that hooks up to the large-capacity trunks and lays the groundwork for connections to homes and businesses.

Rather than waiting for the big internet providers to lay more fiber to sparsely populated parts of the state, more and more rural communities are using grants, local money and forming public/private partnerships to find their own solutions.

Banding together for broadband

A $750,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs helped Routt County, the city of Steamboat Springs, the local school district, hospital and the Yampa Valley Electric Association to install a $2.2 million fiber-optic network connecting those anchor institutions. The group, called Northwest Colorado Broadband, formed about five years ago and negotiated with Wyoming-based Mammoth Networks to provide the middle-mile infrastructure.

“We’re beginning to see some results,” Corrigan said. “Unfortunately, it’s still all in Steamboat Springs. We have been unable to identify a private partner that is really interested in getting out to serve the outlying parts of the county.”

The ranch where Anne Clyncke’s family raises hay in south Routt County and where she works remotely as a consultant for an Atlanta-based firm is one of those outlying areas. The family receives internet via satellite, which is expensive and has caps on the data.

Clyncke’s children can’t do some of their homework online. Her husband wants to stream a livestock auction instead of driving hours to attend in person. The family’s previous satellite company would sell customers extra data, but the current one doesn’t. So, they still stream the hours-long auctions, but it catches up with them.

“It will eat up our data and it will be slow later on in the month,” Clyncke said. “Sometimes I’ll travel to the library to work if we’re out of data.”

In north Routt County, the charter school where Brandon LaChance is executive director combines its DSL service, which runs over phone lines, and internet via satellite.

‘We kind of have a piecemeal approach of two services that don’t complete a whole service for us,” he said.

However, the less-than-ideal internet at North Routt Community Charter School is light-years ahead of that in homes of many of the students and staff members. Several of the homes in the area about 17 miles north of Steamboat Springs have only a dial-up connection, which is slower than DSL, or satellite internet. Or nothing.

LaChance has a dial-up connection. Besides slow, unreliable internet, his cellphone service is poor, he said. While home recently to take care of his sick kids, he couldn’t access his email on his phone nor respond to a reporter’s request for an interview about his school’s internet service.

Through the years, proposals by companies to serve the area have fallen through, including one to run fiber to the school. After the school spent money on a connecting line, LaChance said the company backed out, saying it had made “a math mistake.”

LaChance said he’s proud of his school’s culture, which emphasizes reading and collaboration, and the fact that “our kids aren’t walking around with cellphones and wires hooked up to their heads.”

“But as much as we enjoy the lack of access at the certain appropriate times in a school, we don’t have that access when it’s needed,” he said.

Light at the end of the fiber?

The only hope that LaChance sees on the horizon is the Yampa Valley Electric Association and its subsidiary, Luminate Broadband. Yampa Valley, part of Northwest Colorado Broadband, is using infrastructure, rights of way and other facilities it has to deliver electricity to members of its cooperative to now deliver fiber-optic broadband, which transmits data by light signals over long strands of glass.

“We’ve seen a little bit of growth and interest from internet service providers in coming into the community to help build out the infrastructure, but we didn’t see a lot of interest,” said Steve Johnson, CEO and general manager of Yampa Valley and president of Luminate. “We want to see northwest Colorado have broadband equivalent to what other parts of the country have.”

Johnson lives in the same neighborhood as LaChance. He knows the struggles area residents face. He sees kids routinely congregate at a local store so they can tap into the internet.

“Yampa Valley has all the infrastructure. We have the ability to do it because of what we do on the electric side. If we don’t do it nobody else is going to,” Johnson said.

Luminate got word that it will receive state funds and is applying for more. After about eight months of construction, the company can serve roughly 5,000 customers. It hopes to increase that to 23,000 homes and businesses by the second quarter of 2021.

Luminate runs fiber to the home and offers customers speeds up to 1 gigabit, or 1,000 megabits.

Other rural electric associations in Colorado and across the country are reprising with broadband the role they played in the last century with electricity and phone service — serving people in places where private companies can’t afford or don’t want to go. The FCC has approved broadband funding for REAs. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance says more than 110 electric cooperatives are working on providing broadband internet to rural areas.

Megabits and economics

The importance of access to high-speed internet goes far beyond being able to stream movies. It can make or break a local economy, business and government leaders say.

In the past, poor broadband service has discouraged people from moving to the Crawford and Paonia areas in Delta County, said Liz Heidrick, the owner of Needleock Mountain Realty and Land.

“When people ask about the area, one of the first things they ask is how fast is the internet. It wasn’t like that when I first started 15 years ago,” Heidrick said.

Thanks to Elevate Fiber, a subsidiary of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, Heidrick said the news is better these days. Paonia’s service was upgraded first, and then Crawford’s, she said. She credits better internet service for a 20% to 25% jump in her sales.

“Literally, our sales have increased as a result of people being able to access internet in a rural setting,” Heidrick said.

The fact that people and business throughout Fort Morgan now have access to as much as 1 gigabit of broadband service is a marketing tool for the northeast Colorado community.

“In terms of economic development, it’s something you’re going to find in all of our marketing materials,” said Sarah Crosthwaite, the city’s economic development specialist.

Crosthwaite believes the upgraded service has helped the city retain businesses and makes it a standout in the area. “I think there’s a little bit of a shock that we have it,” she said.

Models for a broadband future?

For several years, businesses in Fort Morgan told city officials that they couldn’t operate with the available internet. But there was a limited number of internet providers around and the larger companies didn’t seem interested in providing higher-speed service to the area, said John Brennan, the deputy city manager and city clerk.

“We were really at a disadvantage,” Brennan said.

So, the city, which owns and operates its own utilities, decided to build its own network, starting construction in 2017. In 2018, Fort Morgan signed an agreement with a Nebraska-based internet provider, Allo Communications. Allo leases and operates the system, which can provide speeds of up to 1 gigabit.

Brennan said the city has invested about $6 million of its reserves on the project. He said other communities are looking at what the northeastern Colorado city has done.

“The council has decided it was something that was necessary for the future of the city and was willing to make that investment,” Brennan said.

The city expects to make back its investment through its lease with Allo.

Across the state and to the mountains in the west, another venture is making strides. The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments has teamed up with state agencies, municipalities, counties and companies on Project Thor, a roughly 400-mile fiber-optic loop that started taking form in 2014.

The network leases space on systems put in place by the Colorado Department of Transportation, CenturyLink and others. It is designed to provide redundancy for communities that can find themselves with no internet for hours or longer if someone on a backhoe, for example, cuts a line. It also provides the building block for communities or companies to expand service to under-served or unserved areas.

The loop starts in Denver, runs west to Rifle, heads north toward Meeker, along U.S. 40 into Steamboat Springs and then back to Denver. The top speed is 200 gigabits.

“We were focused primarily on local projects, whether it be getting broadband access to the town of Red Cliff to helping and working with communities in Routt County and Steamboat Springs and their alliance,” said Walowitiz, the council’s regional broadband program director.

So far, Project Thor, named after the hammer-wielding Norse god, has received $1.27 million in grants from the Department of Local Affairs and another $1.5 million from local governments. Segments of the network are up and running, while others will be tested and come online soon.

“We do think there’s a potential for this to be a public template,” said Jon Stavney, executive director of the regional council. “The state and CDOT are watching.”

So is CenturyLink. The company has taken its lumps for getting federal money to serve rural areas even while many communities still have inadequate service.

“I hear it firsthand when I travel around the state,” said Guy Gunther, CenturyLink’s senior director of consumer broadband strategy.

Gunther said he tells people that while the FCC takes input on which areas to target, “at the end of the day it’s their decision.” But that hasn’t stopped the company from looking for ways to get broadband to more of rural Colorado despite the geographic and economic challenges, he said. For example, CenturyLink took advantage of roadwork being done on Cottonwood Pass to lay fiber that will help improve service to Crested Butte and Buena Vista.

©2019 The Denver Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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