By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
A total of six people — three curious residents, the head of information technology for Colorado Mountain College (CMC) and two reporters — showed up at a meeting at the Carbondale Branch Library on June 15 to learn how Garfield County is faring as it considers ways to expand broadband service in this area.
Garfield County has set a goal of “improving the speed and reliability of internet service for businesses and residents throughout the region,” as outlined in a May 17 statement on the county’s website (www.garfield-county.com).
Toward this end, Garfield County has joined forces with the government of Mesa County to the west, to use a Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant to hire NEO Connect, a consulting firm in Glenwood Springs, to put together a “needs assessment in both counties and to develop a plan for enhancing broadband services,” the Garfield County website states.
NEO also is charged with determining “strategies regarding the local governments’ role in this process,” according to the site.
Diane Kruse, founder and CEO of NEO Connect, and project consultant Steve Burkholder have so far held four community meetings on the topic, in Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and New Castle, according to Burkholder’s statements at the June 15 meeting, and have had fairly low numbers of attendees, Kruse told The Sopris Sun at the meeting.
But, she added, about 40 people attended a meeting aimed at economic development specialists from around the county, which she described as a healthy turnout.
Kruse noted that Glenwood Springs has its own broadband cable network connecting local governmental facilities and schools, with plans to expand that to homes and businesses at some point.
But the county, and the other five towns in the county, have yet to create anything similar for their own constituents.
Not opting out
Garfield and Mesa counties have not joined a growing number of counties and towns that have “opted out” of a state law (SB 05-152) that restricts local governments from coming up with their own broadband services. The law is said to be a result of lobbying by telecommunications corporations, such as Comcast and Century Link, which are in the broadband business but have not provided that service to large parts of the rural Western Slope.
The law, passed in 2005, contains a provision permitting local governments to put the opt-out-or-not question to voters, and according to Kruse and Burkholder, some 60 counties, special districts (such as CMC) and towns around Colorado have voted to opt out and let their local governments explore the potential for localized broad-band service.
In every locality where the opt-out question has been put to voters, Kruse said, “All of them have passed. Many of them have passed with flying colors.”
Garfield County is considering placing a question on the November ballot that would ask county voters whether the county should, in fact, “opt out” and let the county government figure out how to hook up rural communities to high-speed internet service.
The Town of Parachute, she said, also has announced its intention to put an “opt-out” question to voters.
In Carbondale, according to Town Manager Jay Harrington, the board of trustees has discussed the issue in the past and will be doing so at least once and may twice later in the summer. But so far, Harrington reported, no decision has been made.
Jim English, CMC’s director of technical and network services, noted at the Carbondale meeting with NEO Connect that the college district already opted out of SB152’s restrictions, in order to arrange broadband services on its own to its 11 locations across 12,000 miles and nine counties.
And, he said, he was at the Carbondale meeting to learn about how CMC might get involved in extending broadband services beyond the campus and its learning centers.
“We want to make sure our communities are taken care of,” he told The Sopris Sun. “Broadband is pretty important in economic development opportunities.”
When English pointed out that Mesa County is not going for the opt-out alternative, Kruse confirmed it and said that Mesa County might take a legislative route to solving its problems — working to get the state legislature to overturn SB152, which many experts now believe to be obsolete.
One of those attending the meeting, businesswoman Carla Ostberg of Missouri Heights near Carbondale, said she was at the meeting to learn about the possibilities of broadband service to her home.
“I’m here because I have internet challenges and have run out of options,” she told Kruse and Burkholder.
A designer of septic systems, she said her internet service is satellite based and does not meet her needs, particularly in terms of making use of many of the services and functions available on the ’net that she cannot connect to.
Kruse told Ostberg that her firm has been hired, in part, to come up with what she termed “broadband friendly” policies for the two client counties, such as arranging to put “shadow conduit” in newly dug trenches for electric or telephone utilities.
A shadow conduit, Kruse explained, is one that is empty when it is laid out, but which would be ready for new high-speed cable installation should that become available.
She also told those at the meeting that it is likely the ultimate solution for Garfield and Mesa Counties could well be a “hybrid approach” involving the use of fiber-optic cable and wireless, possibly microwave towers to provide connections in the mountainous region.
The two county governments primarily are exploring the potential for public-private partnerships, Kruse said of the Garfield-Mesa joint venture.
One of the citizens at the meeting, retired aerospace worker Bob Lucas and an early board member on the Rofintug internet service provider in the Roaring Fork Valley, asked Kruse about the timing of NEO Connect’s work.
Published in The Sopris Sun on June 23, 2016.