Commissioners contemplate broadband overhaul
Garfield County is considering how far to go with a planned overhaul of the county’s broadband infrastructure, which is hoped to facilitate what Commissioner Tom Jankovsky called the “economic development of the future.”
Before the commissioners can get that far, they and the municipalities would have to persuade voters to opt out of a 2005 state law barring government from getting into the telecommunications business.
“Broadband demand is doubling every year and impacts every part and parcel of our lives,” Diane Kruse, CEO of NEO Fiber, told commissioners Tuesday. It’s no longer just a luxury but a necessity like electricity and water, and it impacts every sector and industry, she said.
Garfield County partnered with Mesa County to get a $150,000 planning grant from the Department of Local Affairs, to which the counties added another $25,000 each for the study. They’ve contracted NEO Fiber to conduct a needs assessment and strategic plan.
The two counties’ broadband planning will start with surveys of residents and businesses, along with Internet speed tests across the county. NEO Fiber will collect the data on those speed tests and with it create a map of the varying speeds across the county.
Residents and businesses can expect to see these surveys as early as next week with the survey period continuing through June, said County Manager Kevin Batchelder.
Following this phase will be a big community engagement effort, including meetings with the different business sectors, including hospitals, schools, private businesses, government agencies and the banking industry, said Batchelder.
The county will also include meetings with potential “community anchor institutions,” such as hospitals, that could host facilities for broadband services, said Kruse.
These days broadband is defined at minimum as 25 megabits per second of download speed and 3 megabits per second of upload speed, said Kruse.
But this is still just a minimum. Some communities have been establishing connection speeds at what Kruse called the “gold standard”: 1 gigabit per second (or 1,000 megabits) for both downloading and uploading.
But it’s yet to be seen how integral of a role the county and other local governments will want to assume for such a project.
On one end of the spectrum you can do nothing and hope the private providers will eventually solve the problem, Kruse told commissioners.
But some communities have gone all in and become their area’s broadband providers, some even connecting broadband to every home and business. But that’s an expensive solution, and commissioners questioned if taking that level of control is an appropriate role for government.
The commissioners have already said they’re not interested in the county becoming a broadband provider but would rather look to a public-private partnership, such as with the energy companies.
Jankovsky suggested that the county’s role could be to focus on establishing broadband infrastructure in the areas between municipalities, giving the communities an infrastructure to connect to.
Kruse told commissioners Tuesday about success stories from the hundreds of other municipalities that have taken varying approaches to integrating broadband into their infrastructure and services.
Successful broadband projects have used grants heavily; one state grant is available for getting fiber optic cable to medical facilities that covers 65 percent of the cost, she said.
In one of NEO Connect’s best success stories, a group of counties were able to pay only about $3 million for a $60 million project, said Kruse, though it’s impossible to say if that kind of margin could happen here because it’s unclear what kinds of partnerships will be available, she said.
But before Garfield County can get that far, it will have to deal with the obstacle of a 2005 state law.
Under this law Garfield County can extend Internet service only to its own facilities and make it available to the public in some limited ways, such as having free Wi-Fi at its library branches.
But if the county, or the municipalities for that matter, want to offer much more, residents will have to vote to approve it. Not only will the county have to put the matter on the ballot, but each municipality as well, said Kruse.
Glenwood Springs has been grandfathered in because it started building fiber optic line before the law was passed.
All the commissioners agreed that opting out of the 2005 law should go to voters in a general election, and Samson suggested getting it on the November ballot.
Even Commissioner John Martin, who said he has no Internet service because of his lifestyle choices (he said he has a cell phone only because the government issued him one), saw the need to bolster the economy with fast and reliable broadband service.
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