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Electric coop could bring broadband to rural Delta and Montrose counties

Flickr user Jasperdo

Slow Internet is a fact of life for many rural Americans, and residents of Western Colorado are no exception. There have been many failed attempts to bring faster Internet to KVNF's listening area, the latest being Eagle Net.

Now, there's yet another idea on the table. The Delta Montrose Electric Association is considering expanding broadband to much of rural Delta and Montrose counties. We begin our report at a local non-profit organization whose business is seriously impacted by the slow internet speeds.

Every year, Solar Energy International teaches hundreds of students how to install solar panels. Many make the trip to SEI’s campus in Paonia. But many more people take online classes.

SEI staff spend a lot of time producing them. And they’re pretty complex—there’s quizzes, videos and presentations. As a result, the computer files are pretty big. And, as  Executive Director Kathy Swartz explains, they can take forever to upload to SEI’s website.

"Sometimes four, sometimes five days to actually upload this into the server. And we’ve even had staff physically drive to Carbondale just to upload these video files."

Schwarz and her staff got sick of driving 60 miles to upload videos. So, they tried something else.

"Our newest thing we do now is we put them onto a hard drive and physically Fed Ex it to the server company and they upload it because our Internet speeds are so slow," she says.

Such measures are unimaginable for most people. Urban Americans by and large enjoy fast and affordable Internet. They can reliably stream Netflix, upload big files and download multiple podcasts at once.

Rural Americans can’t. One in four of them don’t even have access to broadband, defined as 4 megabits per second download, one up.

This is what’s called the “digital divide.”It’s largely a factor of population density, says John Gavan of Delta County Economic Development.

"Delta County is about the same size as the state of Rhode Island. And we have about 30,000 residents. Rhode Island on the other hand has a little over million. The population density is so much higher in the more developed parts of the country, so service providers can find it’s far more profitable to make the large investments to build networks where they have a high population density and they an get a very nice rate of return."

In other words, when people live far apart, internet service providers don’t make enough money to justify the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure. Income is also a factor. Wealthier areas also tend to have faster Internet. That means poor and sparsely-populated places like Delta County are among the least likely places in the country to have access to broadband.

Mike Keyser is the CEO of the BARC Electric Cooperative in Western  Virginia. He’s also on the national Rural Broadband Council. He says that not having broadband puts rural areas at a significant disadvantage.

"They’re going to have worse healthcare, lower quality health care because their hospital’s not going to be connected to high speed internet. And so they’re not going to be able to use telemedicine to talk to doctors in larger hospitals, more skilled doctors. They’re going to have fewer career opportunities. Advertisements for jobs and applications for jobs are almost all online."

Of course, rural areas have many problems high speed Internet won’t solve. Internet won’t stop young people from moving to cities or create a larger and better skilled work force. In fact, some experts say that having broadband doesn’t mean surging ahead, it simply helps rural communities keep up. But not having it means falling behind.

That’s something that many people on the Western Slope, including members of Delta County Economic Development, want to avoid. So they’re hoping to partner with the local rural electric coop, Delta Montrose Electric Association, or DMEA, to bring faster Internet to rural areas.

DMEA is stringing fiber optic cables throughout Delta and Montrose counties to monitor electric meters and substations. But the fiber optic cables have much more space for data transmission than DMEA needs. They could lease that space to Internet service providers like TDS or Skybeam, who could then sell faster Internet to customers.

John Gavan of Delta County Economic Development says broadband is especially important now given the uncertainty in the coal industry. Many miners who lost their jobs at Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine this winter have already left.

"What we can we do to turn that around and start drawing people to this community versus seeing this erosion?" he asks.

In some ways, it’s not surprising that a rural electric coop like DMEA would want to help bring high speed internet to underserved rural areas. Mike Keyser  says they did the same thing for electricity in the 1930s.

"We’re providing the modern equivalent, essential service that was electricity, that now is broadband, to the same customers that are unserved today. Change the word electric for broadband and it would be the exact same story."

Back at SEI, Kathy Swartz says she hopes the proposal to bring faster internet to Delta and Montrose counties becomes a reality.  If it does, it would make life a lot easier, and not just for their staff.

"In the summer we have approximately 500 students come to our programs. And each week we have about 25-30 people out here. And imagine how slow our Internet gets when all 25 people are checking their phones, checking their emails. It literally grinds to a halt.

So just being able to have faster internet would, in addition to the whole video and upload speed, just change things dramatically."

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