Broadband potential coming closer to reality | PostIndependent.com

Broadband potential coming closer to reality

NEO Connect, which is working on a study of broadband needs for Garfield and Mesa counties, on Tuesday presented its Carbondale-specific report to town trustees.

NEO Connect has been making the rounds presenting to all the involved municipalities before it will finally present to county commissioners.

"Broadband is no longer a luxury," said Diane Kruse, founder and CEO of the Glenwood Springs-based NEO Connect. "It's a crucial infrastructure that enables better education, better health care. It's definitely a platform for economic development and an essential service just like power and water were last century. Broadband is the next big critical infrastructure of our time."

The counties will be working on what Kruse called the "middle mile," the distance between communities, which in the rural mountains constitute a challenging and expensive section.

Just as commissioners will decide what level of service they want to provide and how much to rely on private providers, Carbondale and other municipalities will have to make similar decisions.

NEO Connect's study includes community surveys, a market assessment, speed tests across the two counties and inventories of existing broad band access, towers, fiber and conduit where fiber could be installed.

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From the residential survey, nearly half of respondents said they had at least one person telecommuting or working from home. And nearly a quarter said they would think about moving if their internet service wasn't adequate, said Kruse.

While NEO Connect is touring the municipalities with individualized reports, the two counties will get a comprehensive report laying out 20 to 25 different strategies for improving broadband, said Kruse.

The Federal Communications Commission recently redefined what constitutes minimum broadband to 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits upload. However, the gold standard that communities are shooting for is now a gigabit capacity, or 1,000 megabits, said Kruse.

Trustee Ben Bohmfalk said that the Roaring Fork School District has made leaps and bounds in upgrading its broadband access and now has gigabit capacity.

Otherwise, no one in Carbondale is currently getting a gig, said Kruse.

One of the simplest steps Carbondale can take is passing a "dig once" policy requiring that any time a trench is being dug for utility work, empty conduit be installed at the same time. That would eventually lead to a network of conduit ready to be used for fiber-optic line in the future at much less cost.

The next step would be for the town to build fiber to what Kruse called "anchor institutions," key facilities including schools, other government or health-care facilities, which could be supported with grants and then act as a wireless access points.

At a minimum, schools should have a gigabit capacity, as well as the library and key business locations, said Kruse.

Carbondale has an opportunity to partner for a pilot program with Cedar Networks, a company that already has fiber broadband installed to many of the "anchor institutions" in town, said Kruse.

NEO Connect's inventory lists 33 anchor institutions in Carbondale and projects that building fiber to all of them would run about $1.3 million if the town wanted to own all the fiber. If Carbondale used fiber it owned alongside privately owned fiber, that costs cold be cut down to about $967,000, the company estimated.

To build those fiber connections between communities, the two counties are looking into a partnership with Colorado Department of Transportation, which, while its fiber currently stops at Glenwood Springs, has prioritized routes to build more fiber between communities, said Kruse. The town too could look at partnering with CDOT to tap into grant funding, especially for connecting fiber to rural health-care facilities, she said.

Given the town's tight budget, any broadband upgrades in the near future will require Carbondale to use partnerships that require minimal capital investment on the town's part, said Bohmfalk.

The other end of the spectrum is Carbondale building fiber to every home and business, a project that would cost an estimated $12 million in capital costs and take two to three years to build.

The presentation did not include strategies for wireless broadband access, which Kruse said would be included in the final county reports.

Though wireless technology is expected to continue advancing, Kruse encouraged the trustees to focus on fiber. That's partly because even wireless gigabit broadband has to be within 500 feet of fiber, she said.

NEO Connect is meeting with other Garfield County and Mesa County municipalities over the next month, while it is also finishing the final county reports, which are also expected to be submitted in the next 30 days.

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