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Region 10 Tries To Find Ways To Improve Western Slope Broadband

fiber optic cable
Laura Palmisano

A lack of access to high-speed internet is an issue for rural communities on the Western Slope.

Region 10, an organization of governments that serves the area, is trying to address this problem.

The organization recently got a $100,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to make a proposal on how to improve broadband access in six counties: Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray, and San Miguel.

Region 10 has hired Colorado-based consulting firm NEO Fiber to help it make the proposal.

NEO Fiber and Region 10 are hosting meetings on the Western Slope to gather ideas from residents on how to improve broadband access.

Sarah Sauter, the executive director of the nonprofit Conservation Center, attended the Paonia meeting on Friday.

Sauter and about 11 other community members shared their frustration about the areas slow internet speed.

“There’s just some basic business we’re not able to accomplish with slow internet," she says. "I can’t upload pictures. I’m really limited in my ability to make maps with GIS. I can't use Skype to interview potential VISTA volunteers. It really affects our day-to-day business."

Annette Choszczyk, the district director of the Delta County Library system, says limited broadband affects the libraries too.

"We simply do not have what is necessary to serve the public in these areas and to do our own business," Choszczyk says.  

Oogie Mcguire, a North Fork Valley sheep farmer, says limited internet access affects her farming operations. 

"Currently about 40 percent of our business for the farm is online it would be higher if we had higher bandwidth," Mcquire says. 

That’s they type of feedback Diane Kruse with NEO Fiber says she keeps hearing. 

“And we are finding from the community meetings that throughout the region broadband is an issue and stumbling block to economic development," Kruse says. 

She says it can be difficult and expensive to get faster internet to rural areas.

“Many of the issues around broadband are the actual capitol cost of getting better broadband connectivity because western Colorado is rocky, mountainous, and remote that contributes additional costs," Kruse says.  

She says installing fiber optic cables is the most expensive part of the process. 

"Delta County probably has worse internet service than some third world countries," John Gavan, the library system's IT manager and a local elected official, says. 

Gavan says there are numerous examples of people and business not having the internet service they need.

“If you do the math for Delta County we have about 5,300 students," he says. "So that works out to the school district should have about four gigabits of bandwidth. Today the school district has about 100 megabits so this means the school district needs about 40 times what they have today just to get parity with what school districts in major cities have.”

Gavan, who works with Region 10, is also on the board of the Delta Montrose Electrical Association.

He says DMEA is installing fiber optic cables along its transmission routes.

Gavan says this might be one way to get better broadband without the high infrastructure costs.

"The issue is DMEA only needs a small number of fibers, maybe four fibers, on a 48 fiber cable," he says. "So that leaves 40 plus fibers sitting fallow."  

He says those unused fibers could be made available to communities to support the transport of commercial internet traffic. 

Gavan says this approach is called a middle mile network. Essentially DMEA would act as a middleman transporting internet from providers to consumers.

"If that network is deployed it could be an economic game changer," he says. 

Gavan says DMEA is in the process of installing the fiber optic cables. And it hasn’t decided if it will allow local communities to piggyback off its infrastructure.

Kruse with NEO Fiber says one approach won’t work for Region 10’s 22 communities.

"What is going to be a challenge is each of the communities throughout the region is different," she says. "So the plan is not going to be the same for everyone, but what we will do is we will put together a number of options and plans that are available for each community."  

Kruse says it could take up to six months to write the proposal after the community meetings wrap up.

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