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Rural Colorado sees more broadband options coming online. But getting up to speed is taking longer than anticipated in some areas.

The expansion goes nicely with the state’s goal to get rural Colorado up to speed -- to 92% by June from 87% today

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A rush of broadband service is moving into the outskirts of the state, where internet faster than 10 mbps seems scarcer than the number of people who live there.

Ting Internet, already rolling out gigabit service to residents in the city of Centennial, acquired a Durango-based internet provider last month and just announced it will expand similar service to residents in the Roaring Fork Valley

Over in Cortez, the city wrapped up a successful broadband pilot program and is now negotiating with a private internet company to offer fiber-based service to residents.

And Dove Creek, near the Utah border, in a county where there are 1.9 people per square mile, will benefit from a federal grant to help fund gigabit service to 494 homes and businesses. (Denver’s population density is 3,922.6 people per square mile, as of the 2010 U.S. Census.)

“We’re really excited about that out here and, as one of the county commissioners said (about Dove Creek), ‘It’s the best thing since pockets on a shirt,’” said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, which watches out for the state’s five most southwestern counties. “That will be, honestly, the first fiber to the premise in southwest Colorado at a wholesale basis. It’s in a town of 900-some people.”

Looking west towards Dove Creek, Colorado on the Colorado-Utah border. (Provided by James Pendleton, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

The expansion goes nicely with the state’s goal to get rural Colorado up to speed — to 92% by June from 87% today. But that doesn’t mean folks in all of these rural communities are getting the federal minimum speed of 25 mbps down, 3 mbps up. Even in the heart of the San Juan National Forest, a broadband map claims there’s internet service of 25 to 50 mbps. 

“The problem is the mapping itself. When you look at it, almost all of southwest Colorado is served because areas like the National Forest get covered because one house adjacent to the National Forest has quote-unquote broadband. So therefore that census block, which is a good chunk of a national forest, is covered,” she said. “It’s not granular enough.”

The undercounting has been an ongoing issue for years and the result has been that some small towns don’t qualify for federal grants to help build coveted broadband infrastructure. A bill, known as the Broadband Data Act, is making its way through the U.S. Senate to address such issues as the rural undercount. And that could help Colorado, said Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office, which is tasked with getting broadband service to all of the state’s rural communities. 

“The (Federal Communications Commission) has acknowledged that their existing broadband mapping methodology is flawed. It produces inaccurate information regarding coverage and underestimates the gap in rural areas,” Neal-Graves said. “The (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) launched a mapping pilot last year with eight states. Colorado is hoping to participate in the second round of the pilot this year.”

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Challenges of rural fiber

Meanwhile, rural cities and towns plug along, some of them exploring their own service or hiring someone else to do it.

In Bayfield, just outside of Durango, the city received a portion of a $3 million grant from the state’s Department of Local Affairs a few years ago to build an internet backbone in town. But that was just the start. More challenging has been the “middle mile,” or finding someone to connect residents to that faster internet. The town considered doing it, but is now restrategizing and will likely look for private internet companies to provide that connection. 

“Honestly, the majority of people get their service through CenturyLink, and a lot of that is over copper,” said Chris La May, who just left his job as Bayfield’s town manager. “In general, if you look at the surveys, people are not satisfied with the service they’re receiving for the price they’re paying. That’s why we’re going through the process of reviewing what we can do. …  As we’re all finding, people are wanting more bandwidth, not less.”

According to the Colorado Broadband Office map of coverage and speeds, the state’s southwest corner has many areas with 25 to 50 mbps coverage, including the Mesa Verde National Park and parts of the San Juan National Forest. (Screenshot)

Ting Internet, a newcomer to the Western Slope, acquired Cedar Networks in Durango last month. It announced plans last week to broaden Cedar’s existing fiber-internet service beyond large clients who are located from Durango to Grand Junction and along Interstate 70, said Monica Webb, the company’s director of market development and government affairs. 

“They (Cedar Networks) serve close to 80% of the community anchor institutions between Grand Junction and Aspen. And that was a really good complement to Ting. Where we’ve really excelled is delivering fiber to residential customers. So it’s a nice marriage of, you know, common values and complimentary strength,” Webb said.

The company still needs residential density, or a minimum number of households, to make fiber internet service financially feasible. Webb declined to say what that would be, but pointed to Ting’s operation in Sandpoint, Idaho, population of about 8,000. 

“It’s not dissimilar from Colorado in that it’s got a big ski area in town, but within town, it’s fairly dense,” she said. “It’s a remote area, but it’s a community that has sufficient density and population.”  

Residential customers can expect plans similar to what Ting offers elsewhere, such as Centennial, where the gigabit plan is $89 a month, with a cheaper 5 mbps plan at $19.

Over in Cortez, a city-owned fiber network has long connected its facilities. Two years ago, it ran a pilot program to provide broadband to residents and businesses. Approximately 183 out of a possible 278 customers participated, or 65.8%. People are keen to get faster internet, said Rick Smith, Cortez’s general services director.

Cortez in southwest Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But the lesson learned by Cortez in the pilot program was that the city shouldn’t be operating its own public internet service. The time, cost and effort in managing customer bills and service was better left to a private company, the city concluded. Smith said the town was told it wasn’t qualified to apply for some federal grants because of an existing loan by another company. So last spring it hired internet service provider Allo Communications, out of Nebraska, to set up fiber service for residents. But it’s been a slow process and the city is still negotiating with Allo. 

“My dream is we would have been in the middle of construction right now. It’s been pretty frustrating,” Smith said, adding that he was astounded to learn from a countywide survey that 25% of area homes had a home-based business. “There’s no reason somebody can’t live here with our quality of life and have a job with anybody in the world. We’ve just got to get our telecommunications in place and more connectivity.” 

Federal funding changes

For years, the federal government has offered needy areas grants and loans through the Connect America Fund, which uses Universal Service Fund money collected from consumers in their monthly phone bills. 

In Colorado, the largest recipient, CenturyLink, received $107.3 million from the federal program and has helped get service of at least 10 mbps to 31,620 rural households in Colorado by the end of 2018. That’s about 90% of CAF funds distributed in Colorado since 2015. But those households are unlikely to get upgraded to faster broadband, which the FCC now defines as 25 mbps down, 3 mbps up.

“That’s a copper-based network. When you’re trying to build out a future-proof fiber network, it slams so many doors on you for funding. As a national policy, It’s embarrassing,” Smith said. “Why wouldn’t you want your citizens of the United States to have the highest, best network in the world? But you keep subsidizing this old copper infrastructure and copper, to me, is silly.”

CenturyLink, which received a half-billion dollars from the fund, said it has made “substantial investments” in locations where it’s expensive to build broadband. While Connect America Fund requires a minimum speed of 10 mbps, CenturyLink said the speed could be faster in some communities depending on the distance, terrain and technologies used.

“Over the last five years, the company has deployed broadband to nearly 900,000 homes and small businesses in FCC-designated census blocks across rural America, including to more than 37,000 locations in Colorado,” the company said in a statement.

The Colorado Broadband Office takes all that federal data plus other sources to come up with its own map of who still needs service. In rural communities, the state is now at 87%, up one percentage point from last June, and up from 77% when Tony Neal-Graves started the job as the agency’s executive director in 2017. The goal is 92% — by June.

“It will be challenging to achieve a five-point improvement in the metric by June 2020, as this is a self-reporting process in partnership with the industry,” Neal-Graves said. 

But he’s hopeful with announcements like Dove Creek benefiting from a $2.7 million federal grant to Emery Telcom in Utah. The funding is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect Loan and Grant program.

There is a revamp of federal grant and loan programs to help rural and low-income communities. The Broadband Data Act aims to fix the mapping problem to better inform decision-makers about who doesn’t have broadband service. There’s also the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which could provide $20.4 billion in federal funds to expand broadband in unserved rural areas. 

Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the five-county Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, said it’s going to take everything she and the communities can cobble together to get the region to broadband speeds.

“To be able to serve the entire region, all 100,000 people out here, it’s going to be a hybrid of a fiber backbone, fiber to the premise in communities where appropriate, and a wireless overlay to get to those areas where (fiber) is not cost-effective infrastructure,” she said. “Farmer Bob is probably not going to have the dollars to lay fiber down his 20-mile long driveway. And that’s OK. But he and that household do not deserve any less than anybody else just because they live in the rural areas.”

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