The far Western Colorado town of Dove Creek, population 724, became the first municipality in the state to benefit from the $600 million federal grant program to help build better rural broadband in agricultural communities.
Utah-based Emery Telcom was awarded a $2.7 million grant, which will be used to provide gigabit broadband service to 494 homes and businesses in Dove Creek, plus another 57 across the border in Utah. The grant is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Loan and Grant Program.
“This is going to be great for our businesses,” Town Manager Irvin Frazier said.
Congress provided funding in 2018 for the ReConnect program to focus on building broadband infrastructure in rural America. The agency received 146 applications asking for $1.4 billion during a six-week period that ended July 12. So far, $112.7 million has been awarded. At least two other applicants are from Colorado and are still awaiting word.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., called broadband a necessity, not a luxury. He wrote a letter of support for the three companies. (Bennet also is running in the Democratic presidential primary.)
San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative sought $1.7 million to provide fiber-to-the-home internet to 67 homes, businesses, institutions and farms in the area. The electric coop would build a broadband network offering gigabit speeds to an underserved 365-square-mile region that includes Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande and Saguache counties.
The other applicant would bring broadband service to the farming community in Delta and Montrose counties. Elevate, the internet service from Delta-Montrose Electric Association, asked for a grant to cover half of a $21.4 million project to provide 3,445 homes with fiber-based gigabit internet. The project would install 395 miles of fiber cables.
Mark Kurtz, Elevate’s senior business project manager, said winning the award would help the company build out broadband to the farming communities. Currently, the alternative is wireless internet that is expensive and slow, or less than 5 megabits per second.
“This is for agricultural users,” Kurtz said. “There are a lot of efforts across the nation for precision farming. This is certainly the Western Slope’s largest farming area and one of the bigger ones in Colorado. We want to give farmers (internet service) to do all the things they want to do in terms of using GPS-driven tractors and other technology farmers are taking advantage of.”
Elevate has spent the past few years building out its broadband network in the more dense neighborhoods in the region. But building infrastructure in farming communities, where buildings are much farther apart, is too costly without grants. He estimated that in a typical residential neighborhood, the cost is about $1,500 per house. But in rural communities, it can be $10,000 to $25,000 per home.
“Without that (grant), frankly, some of these areas we’re looking at to use the grants may not be built for 10 years or in some cases, never be built,” he said. “You can’t look to do something like this when the return is 40 years away.”
Emery Telcom, based in Orangeville, Utah, offers broadband and cable TV service on the eastern side of Utah and in Monticello, which is 27 miles west of Dove Creek. Jared Anderson, Emery’s chief operating officer, said permitting will start immediately.
The company has five years to complete the project — or lose the federal grant. Anderson said prices will be similar to service it offers in Moab, Utah, which hovers around $100 a month for fiber internet and phone service. The company also has cable TV service but is unlikely to offer it in Dove Creek.
“As part of the grant process, I went and met with the town,” he said. “They were instrumental in getting letters of support, which is one of the ways the USDA ranks applicants.”
Dove Creek and several other communities were supposed to get better broadband funded by a federal grant back in 2013 to help Eagle-Net expand. But the grant was suspended due to environmental issues, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
“Eagle-Net was supposed to put in stuff in the schools but ended up maybe a mile out of town,” Frazier said. “The county took it and ran fiber from the courthouse to the schools. But we’ve been fighting the fight to get it here ever since.”
The ReConnect grant was open to communities with no internet or slower than 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps for up. Many of the applicants want to build gigabit fiber to the home, which means download speeds that are 100 times faster. There was no limit to how much a grant-winning company could charge for internet service.
USDA public affairs specialist James Pendleton, who happened to stop in Dove Creek on a road trip, said it was difficult to determine how many grant applicants were from Colorado. But he expects award announcements to continue trickling out into the new year.
According to the Colorado Broadband Office, rural internet coverage has improved dramatically as state grants to private companies and local towns have helped offset some of the costs. Broadband now reaches 86% of the state’s rural households, up from 77% two years ago.
But that means there are still underserved communities, said Matthew Atwood, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes Dove Creek. In Conejos County, for example, only 9.9% of the population has access to broadband download speeds of at least 25 Mbps, he said.
“Our district specifically, as opposed to other districts, has been in a push to get them up to speed, so to speak,” Atwood said. “The congressman has been on a lot of rural hospital visits and with the snow coming in, it’s critical for them to have broadband service at home so they have access to telehealth when they can’t leave.”