State grant to help plan broadband expansion |

State grant to help plan broadband expansion

Carbondale’s Chamber of Commerce has seen a promising increase in its membership in recent years as the economy continues to improve, but one problem persists for a lot of small businesses that it and other small-town chambers serve.

About 60 percent of the Carbondale chamber’s member businesses are relatively small with between one and three employees, chamber Director Andrea Stewart said.

And many of those are based out of people’s home offices, which oftentimes are located in outlying areas where Internet service can be limited.

“Sometimes the Internet speed in those areas isn’t great,” Stewart said. “I had one business owner located just off Catherine Store Road who said that when everybody is working at once the Internet can be so slow no one can get anything done.”

A joint effort between Garfield and Mesa counties that was recently awarded a $150,000 planning grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs seeks to improve that situation.

Garfield County is taking the lead in working with a broadband consultant to develop a needs assessment and master plan to improve Internet capabilities in the two counties.

“Each of the counties will be working to organize their municipalities to set up a steering committee, and the consultant will be tasked with reaching out to the broader community,” said Kevin Batchelder, acting Garfield County manager.

That will include hospitals, emergency services providers and private businesses who would like to be involved in developing the plan, as well as providers who offer Internet services, he said.

The plan itself will identify where broadband is and isn’t available, with an emphasis on populated rural areas that have not yet been reached by the fiber optics network.

“The goal is really to provide abundant, reliable and affordable broadband services, and we need to develop a regional plan to do that and identify partners [providers] that are available to be part of that expansion,” Batchelder said.

Another key goal is to have more redundancy in the system for backup whenever there is a disruption in service due to a severed line or other outage. That’s particularly important for emergency response agencies in cases such as the Internet and phone outage that hit Carbondale last spring, knocking out emergency 911 service and other communications capabilities.

“This regional, collaborative planning effort is intended to expand our citizens’ access to broadband and is a vital step in enhancing our economic development efforts, improving our emergency services and inter-jurisdictional communications, and improving our broadband access to educational and health-care delivery systems,” according to an overview of the proposal submitted with the grant application earlier this year.

Batchelder said the goal is to develop partnerships with private service providers to implement the eventual plan, rather than the counties getting into the business of provide broadband services themselves. However, it might involve granting easements along county roads and other public rights of way in order to bury fiber, he said.

Any government involvement in directly providing broadband services would require a public vote, as the city of Glenwood Springs did several years ago when it implemented a citywide broadband network.

“This type of expansion will be huge for the business community,” Stewart said. “It’s something that would not only help our current businesses, but could also help new businesses in deciding whether to locate here.”

Batchelder said the needs assessment and master plan are expected to be completed in six months after the grant contract with DOLA is finalized. It would then have to be approved by both boards of county commissioners.

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