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Cell phone and rural broadband towers in Alamosa County, Colorado with the Sangre de Cristos in distance on Jan. 22, 2021. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

When schools switched to remote learning last spring as the pandemic took hold, Crystal Gonzales, a mother of five, wondered “How am I going to do this?” 

The Alamosa resident was juggling two part-time jobs and five children from a toddler to teenagers. With her kids at home and trying to help them focus on classes online, she needed more bandwidth. Literally. 

She called up her internet company Jade Communications, and they upgraded her service. They also mentioned a new parental control app because of her concerns about what else her kids were doing online. She decided to give it a try and soon saw it in action. 

“I get this fun notification on my phone from the Jade Wi-Fi app saying that the anaconda (website) was blocked under a category for pornography and nudity. And my heart sank, but with a relief because it told me which device it was on. It said, ‘Hey, on (my 7-year-old’s) laptop, this is flagged,” Gonzales said. “I didn’t have to have a conversation about what he might have seen that day.”

An example of the Filters Screen in the Jade Wi-Fi app that allows the customer to decide which websites to allow or block. This app allows parental controls and works through the hardware of the router, rather than software that could be circumvented by a clever child. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jade knows the potential of the internet. They’re expanding while long-time competitors, like Charter Communications and Lumen (formerly CenturyLink) in the San Luis Valley, are not as active, said city officials.

Jade and local rival Ciello in Monte Vista often step up to help out the community and expand service because there are still spots in the county of 16,200 people with sub-par or no internet. About 3,000 people in the county have internet speeds slower than 25 mbps, according to a BroadbandNow report.

Since the pandemic began, Jade has been working with more than a half-dozen school districts in the San Luis Valley to provide students with broadband at home. And then the company wanted to figure out how to solve the distraction issue after hearing from customers.

“We started hearing complaints from parents, saying something to the effect of, ‘My kid is supposed to be in school but he’s using the internet for TikTok.’ Or ‘My kid is supposed to be in Zoom class and he’s playing PlayStation,’” said Jordan Wehe, Jade’s director of marketing. “It’s a real challenge parents face, especially working parents who have to work remote and make sure they’re being productive in their own workplace, but also ensuring that their children are getting the same quality of education they’re supposed to — unsupervised.”

Home-grown service

Jade is not a big company. There are nine employees at the family business that Alan Wehe started in 1991 as a cable TV provider. Today, it mainly offers broadband, including gigabit fiber, and serves a six-county area “about the size of the state of Massachusetts,” said Jordan, Alan’s son.

Jordan and his brother Josh, who took over Jade’s network operations in 2015, grew up in the San Luis Valley. They left for college. After Jordan earned a master’s at the University of Denver and Josh at Yale University, they, returned home where they know people by name. They also know the benefits of fast internet and are focused on making it available for the region. 

Brothers Josh and Jordan Wehe explain how their company, Jade Communications, uses innovative technology to enable parents to control what comes in and out of their homes on the internet with a combination of fiber optic cable and an advanced router, “It is like the Tesla of routers,” Jordan said. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rural broadband has been an afterthought for larger internet companies, mainly because the financial return isn’t high enough. Laying miles of fiber gets costly when customers live so far apart. In recent years, Colorado has set up grants to help local ISPs and governments to tackle the digital divide in ways that incumbents are not. Jade has received some of that funding. 

Because of the nature of broadband, Jade and its customers have access to, well, nearly everything that someone sitting in front of a computer in Silicon Valley has. The Wehe brothers, both in their late 20s, want all their neighbors to have modern access too.

“Our goal, being a local company, is to make our community a better place to live so that people from Denver, if they want to escape from their 800-square-foot apartment and want to move to Alamosa for the recreational benefits, they could but still have their corporate job,” Jordan Wehe said. “For us it’s really about how do we make our lives better here within our means through the innovation resources we have.” 

Cell phone and rural broadband towers in Alamosa County, with the Sangre de Cristos in distance. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

The city of Alamosa is happy to oblige. 

Jim Belknap, the city’s IT director, said there are other broadband options but it’s Jade and Ciello that are actively expanding gigabit fiber. Anytime the city digs up the street, it lays down conduit that can be used by local internet companies. 

“While I would not say our internet availability attracts remote workers and businesses just yet,” Belknap said, “I would say that our broadband availability does not drive any remote workers or businesses away.” 

Both companies have invested in networks to help households that struggled to get online. A $150,000 state grant was just awarded to the Center Consolidated School District to increase bandwidth speeds and provide service to another 25 students. Jade and Ciello have already helped the district provide internet to 100 families who were unreached by larger ISPs, and offering discounts, Superintendent Carrie Zimmerman said. 

“That’s part of our problem,” Zimmerman said. “People talk about T-Mobile and what they’re doing for schools, but we don’t have access to T-Mobile at all. Charter is in the valley but (service is) just not great here in Center. We haven’t had the direct contact with them like Ciello and Jade. … I think we reached out to (Ciello and Jade) and said, ‘We’re doing this’ and they both responded. It was awesome.”

Family controls

Figuring out how to help parents keep track of what their children do online wasn’t too difficult.

Jade uses Calix, a San Jose tech firm that develops features for ISPs of all sizes, such as network security and Wi-Fi management. Calix had a parent app that Jade customized and added to its suite of services, for about $10 extra a month.

“It’s so funny. A lot of folks said, ‘We want to cancel our internet and if they don’t get a chance to go to school, that’s the consequences for not following the rules of our home,’” Jordan Wehe said. “Josh and I talked about this and you know, we’re thinking that’s not really fair to the student. I mean, kids are kids. We also had some other parents ask us for ideas like ‘How do you do this in your home?’ ‘Is it a device basket.’ ‘Is it a second router?’ We even had one parent request that we turn off the internet every night at 7 p.m.”

Because Jade is an ISP and not a software developer, it can help customers monitor everything going in and out of a home — not just what’s on a device. Unlike some parental-control software that kids manage to find workarounds for, Jade’s app controls the internet. Using Jade’s router, customers can see what devices are using the home network, prevent suspicious internet activity and, essentially, turn off the internet to specific devices. No more Tumblr-ing into the night or giggling at short videos on TikTok. 

Jade made the app its own, said Pam Ferguson, Calix’s vice president, product and field marketing. Last year, Calix gave Jade its “Innovator of the Year” award.

“They’ve personalized the apps, but I would give them credit for the work that they did with our app,” Ferguson said. “We have 1,500 customers so we’re seeing all kinds of incredibly innovative things from just different marketing approaches to different thoughts in terms of pricing. But Jade really won from that end-to-end perspective.”

Ruby, 8, and Heidi, 10, work on their father’s custom computer at home as he looks on. Brian Heersink works IT at the Alamosa Regional Medical Center. Heersink uses a parental control app from a local internet service provider Jade Communications, that helps regulate what his daughters can access online. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brian Heersink, a Jade customer who lives just outside of Alamosa, is friends with Josh Wehe, who told him about the app. Heersink had been using Google and Microsoft to limit screen time for his two daughters who are in elementary school.

“The nice thing about Jade is that it’s all built into their system. It’s not going through Google servers,” Heersink said. “And they take requests. So if I have something I don’t like or want to change, I just ask them about it and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we can ask for that in development.’ Whereas Google, you know that I’ll never get the time of day with Google.”

Ubiquitous screens

Parental controls for electronic devices have been evolving for years. But so has the research that screentime is bad for kids. It’s apparently not that bad anymore, even for kids under age 2.

“It’s tricky because, especially right now, the notion of screen time is almost outdated at this point because screens are so ubiquitous,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor for social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media. “Putting numbers on what’s appropriate or best for kids is really, really tricky. It’s more about how it’s affecting the individual kid.”

She said parents need to continue parenting and observe their children. Does too much screen time make them moody? Do you notice a personality change when a child has been gaming for a couple of hours. Does it keep the kid from doing non-screen activities, like playing outdoors? 

Heidi Heersink, 10, works on her laptop sitting at the dining room table. Her family gets internet access from Jade Communications, which worked with a San Jose, California, company to develop parental controls that can be used to manage everything going into and out of the home online. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Crystal Gonzales said she got her older kids iPhones for Christmas. She then Googled a list of websites to block and added them to Jade’s app. And then she talked to her kids about it. But there’s still a learning curve.

“The moment I told my daughter that I didn’t want her to download TikTok — my husband and I put our foot down about that — I got a notification TikTok was blocked. I’m like, ‘Girl, come on!’” said Gonzales, who lives in Alamosa. “I get notified about things like just regular teenage behavior. They’re trying to test the waters and see what they can get away with. And this helps me refrain from being a broken record. I don’t have to tell them all the time. I just know. And then I can have a normal healthy conversation with them about it.”

As students moved to hybrid or virtual learning during the pandemic, that translated into additional screen time but also “straying from what they’re supposed to be doing online during online school,” said Elgersma, with Common Sense Media, an organization known for providing parents with ratings on age-appropriate movies and other media. 

“Very broadly, there’s definitely a place for parental controls or system controls that are not surveilling what kids are doing every minute,” she said. “But the first step in making any kind of … control effective at all, is to prep kids for safe, timed responsible use of technology. Teaching kids about digital citizenship before putting a device in their hands is ideal. … Trying to fight tech with tech is not going to bear fruit for kids or teachers or parents.”

It’s not just kids. Adults are spending more time online as well, perhaps more than they realized, admitted Heersink, who works in the IT industry. 

“Heck,” he said, “I even have it turned on for myself because then I can look at the end of the week and (realize) I spent three hours on TikTok.” 

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...