Bit by bit, southwestern Colorado is cobbling together fiber-fast broadband service to get its residents up to speed, or at least to 2015 internet standards, when the Federal Communications Commission updated its benchmark to 25 megabits down and 3 Mbps up.
The latest bit came this week as three Colorado counties learned that Utah-based Emery Telcom was awarded a $6.3 million federal grant to provide gigabit fiber in their communities. About 684 homes, 91 farms, 52 businesses, three fire stations and two post offices are in the proposed upgrade, which represents about 4.6% of the households in Dolores, San Miguel and Montezuma counties.
That may seem like small potatoes compared to the Front Range, but the project will help bring the underserved communities to a modern digital era that will go beyond faster broadband at home, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of Southwest Colorado Council of Governments
“One of the things that’s great about this is that it’s starting to build out fiber in areas that don’t even really have cell phone service,” Gillow-Wiles said. “It’s a huge step.”
It’s the second time within 12 months that the southwest region got a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, a $1.2 billion program to increase internet speeds in rural America and for farmers. In November, the town of Dove Creek became the first Colorado community to benefit from ReConnect, through a $2.7 million grant also awarded to Emery Telecom, which is also known as Emery Telecommunications & Video. With 494 homes designated for gigabit broadband, that’s two-thirds of Dolores County’s population.
Private broadband services that expand in rural communities typically do so after receiving public funding. The Colorado Broadband Deployment Board has provided $34.1 million in matching grants to 43 projects since 2016 to provide service to underserved and rural areas, while the Department of Local Affairs provides funding to local governments to get their towns up to speed.
Without funding, private companies must weigh the financial return of building a high-speed network that serves just a handful of customers. Ting Internet, which is building fiber internet in Centennial, doesn’t plan to do the same in Durango, where it acquired Cedar Networks in January. At the time, the Canadian company said it was sticking to large nonresidential customers for now since it needs a minimum residential density to make service financially feasible.
The state has a goal to get FCC-minimum speeds to 92% of rural Colorado households. It was at approximately 87.1% in late May. After the two projects are completed, Tony Neal-Graves, CEO of the state’s broadband office, estimated that it will increase the state’s rural coverage by 0.2%, which may seem meager.
“However, to these rural, remote communities the impact of this funding will be the difference between night and day because depending on the locations served it could mean that over 50% of Dolores County residents will have access to (fiber to the premise),” Neal-Graves said. “Dolores County has 1,468 households per 2010 U.S. Census data, of which 53.82% have access to 25/3 Mbps service according to our April 2020 broadband data.”
In Dove Creek, Emery is still working on permitting and environmental studies, but the hope is construction will go fast and not take the five years the USDA allows for projects to be completed, said Jared Anderson, Emery’s chief operating officer.
“We don’t want any project to take five years,” he said.
No Colorado-based providers have received the ReConnect grants, which is in the second round of awards.
Anderson said it wasn’t an easy application process. Part of it was meeting criteria that was out of the company’s control — it had to find the data on sub-par or nonexistent internet service, the number of underserved households and the potential farming and business community. But his team attended USDA workshops to learn how the applications are weighted, and they gathered support from the community and local and state governments, plus a letter from Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
“We had an outpouring of support from a variety of different groups,” Anderson said.
In his letter, Bennet included two other broadband providers in Colorado who are still waiting to hear whether they will get some ReConnect money. Delta-Montrose Electric Association, which saw its application fail during the first round, tried again and asked for $12.8 million to provide fiber broadband to 2,448 households in rural farming communities in Delta and Montrose counties.
Yampa Valley Electric Association also asked for $6 million to help build gigabit fiber to reach 267 unserved households in parts of Moffet, Eagle and Grand counties. It would put in $2 million of its own money.
“I welcome USDA’s investment to deploy more high-speed broadband in Dolores, San Miguel, and Montezuma Counties, and I’ll continue fighting for resources until all of our communities have access to affordable, high-speed broadband no matter where they live,” Bennet said in a statement.
After winning the grant to build out Dove Creek, Emery decided to apply for the second round to expand service south along U.S. 491 to Lewis and north on Colorado 141 to Egnar. It’ll use the money to build a 25-mile “middle mile” pipe connecting Dove Creek to the other towns, Anderson said.
“One of the things that we heard through students having to school from home, along with businesses and employees sending people home, is just that for video conferencing and teaching needs, upload bandwidth was insufficient and they were continually running into problems,” Anderson said. “These communities will all be getting fiber to the home with speeds up to one gig up, one gig down.”
Emery is investing about $2.1 million of its own dollars into the project.
The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, which is supported by the governments of the five counties, has been monitoring and encouraging broadband projects for the past decade. It’s working with Arcadian Infracom, a Missouri company building a long-haul fiber route to solve the internet lag issue in Middle America, especially as large tech companies like Facebook and Amazon have seen a surge in use during the pandemic. Phase one will cut through southwest Colorado, through Navajo Nation, to connect Phoenix to Denver.
“They’re building this infrastructure through these areas,” Gillow-Wiles said. “They’re also taking into account the fact that most of these areas have been forgotten by the other ISPs when it comes to connectivity. They’re working with the tribes very closely so they’re being good partners (and will) then help connect the rural communities and these big data users.”
Gillow-Wiles said the infrastructure is necessary because there are communities with no fiber broadband at all.
“We are working with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe for infrastructure development from Cortez to Towaoc because there’s currently no fiber in Towaoc,” she said. “That’s made everything real challenging.”
Getting the infrastructure in place will hopefully attract more ISPs to add faster residential service. The limits have been more noticeable during the pandemic as students and workers moved to remote learning or work.
With the addition of the two Emery Telecom projects, this could nudge cellular companies to tap into the fiber and provide better cellular coverage for the region. The lack of reliable mobile service creates a public safety issue for folks with poor internet and no cell service at home, Gillow-Wiles said.
“This is a massive benefit to the community, the residents and public safety,” she said. “Just being able to operate in the modern world and help economic development for these three counties that have very little connectivity.”
This story was updated on Oct. 16, 2020 to include comments from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.