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Pikes Peak region's rural communities looking for broadband on-ramp

May 13, 2018 Updated: May 14, 2018 at 7:00 am
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Fountain, Manitou Springs and El Paso County have invested tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in studies to explore how they might help expand residents' access to affordable high-speed internet. In this AP file photo: A.J. Bowen of Schupp's Line Construction, Inc. works on fiber-optic installation in Norton, Vt., Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Fountain, Manitou Springs and El Paso County have invested tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars in studies to explore how they might help expand residents' access to affordable high-speed internet.

Behind the effort is the desire to improve the quality of life in rural areas where internet connections often lag at dial-up speeds, making streaming videos, online gaming, and even checking emails difficult, much less trying to run a business.

County commissioners in March approved a nearly $150,000 contract with professional engineering and technical consulting firm HR Green, Inc., for its broadband strategic plan.

The study will take into account what private internet providers such as CenturyLink Inc. and Comcast Corp. offer in the county, from fiber optic broadband to wireless, and planned expansions of those networks. The study will also identify opportunities for regional collaboration as well as options for how broadband initiatives might be structured and funded.

Manitou Springs and Fountain have also hired HR Green.

Locally, governments are taking up the issue at an opportune time - this summer, the Colorado Department of Transportation is planning to dig a trench along U.S. 24 from Colorado Springs to Woodland Park to lay fiber optic cable, said CDOT spokeswoman Michelle Peulen.

The agency has budgeted about $3 million for the new transmission lines, which CDOT will use for its own needs, such as traffic cameras and electronic signage, she said.

Towns along Ute Pass will likely have the chance to drop in their own lines in CDOT's trench for a fraction of the normal cost of laying cable.

Exploring possibilities

What will result from the studies remains unknown, but other Colorado cities offer success stories. Centennial has opted to develop a roughly $5 million fiber optic "backbone" that private providers can connect to.

In Longmont, the city developed a business plan and built out existing network infrastructure after voters approved $45.3 million in bonds in 2013, according to the Colorado Municipal League. Last year, Longmont became the first city in Colorado to provide "citywide symmetrical gigabit internet service, without data caps," according to the city utility provider's website.

More than 100 cities, towns and counties have voted to opt out of a 2005 law that bars local governments from entering the broadband market. Each of those exclusions opens the door to examine options - from building a broadband system from scratch and becoming a provider to investing in some infrastructure and forging a partnership with internet companies, said Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Municipal League.

"It's pretty cool when it works out," Bommer said. "It takes time, though, and there's really no magic bullet for determining what the best way to do it is."

Several area governments, including Green Mountain Falls, Victor, Woodland Park, Cripple Creek, and Teller and El Paso Counties, chose to opt out of the law in the November 2016 election. Colorado Springs followed in spring 2017, and Manitou Springs last fall. Fountain plans to ask its voters in November.

Private internet service providers have protested the exclusions, saying that the law was meant to prevent local governments from becoming competitors of for-profit companies.

Working out the details

County spokesman Dave Rose said it's unlikely that the county will get into the broadband business, but officials want to know more about how the government might work with private companies to improve internet speeds for residents.

The county has fielded complaints about subpar connections from residents in Black Forest and Ute Pass, Rose said. At the Teller County courthouse in Cripple Creek, attorneys and staff often have trouble transferring documents electronically to El Paso County's courthouse in Colorado Springs because the internet service is so poor, he said.

Some parts of the county are served by private providers' fiber-optic cable networks, but in more rural areas, it's cost-prohibitive because the investment would serve a relatively small number of customers, said HR Green Vice President David Zelenok.

What local governments can do is identify opportunities to build out networks early on, Zelenok said. For example, laying conduit - the plastic piping that holds underground fiber-optic cables - during other construction projects is about 20 times cheaper than it normally costs to install the cable, he said.

HG Green began working with the Manitou Springs Urban Renewal Authority last year for a variety of broadband-related reasons, including negotiating with internet companies and providing engineering support in the installation of conduit during the reconstruction of Manitou Avenue.

As of April 11, approximately 1,000 feet of conduit had been installed during the multimillion dollar revamp of the stretch of road between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, and officials had plans to lay 2,000 feet more, according to a memo that was presented to the Manitou Springs City Council last month. The cost of the conduit was pegged at about $15,000, according to the memo.

Manitou Springs Mayor Ken Jaray said Colorado Springs Utilities is abandoning a 30-inch water main that runs through Manitou Springs and could also serve as a conduit for fiber-optic cables.

The city is finalizing another $22,000 contract with HR Green to make a plan, according to Manitou Springs' interim city manager.

"Having high-speed internet available to our businesses, residents and visitors is the wave of the future," Jaray said. "It just allows us to connect people a lot faster and a lot better, and allows people to connect with the outside world better."

The city of Woodland Park has budgeted $40,000 this year to develop a similar vision for broadband services. City Councilman Val Carr said that the city will likely contract with a private company to develop the strategic plan.

Fountain paid HR Green $23,000 for the first phase of a conceptual study that was presented to the Fountain City Council in February, said the city's utilities director, Curtis Mitchell.

Fountain Mayor Gabriel Ortega said city staff is in the process of drafting ballot language to opt out of the 2005 state law. If the measure passes in November, he said the city will consider all of its options, including becoming a utility provider.

While other local governments in the Pikes Peak region are moving forward with broadband planning, Colorado Springs isn't likely to follow suit any time soon.

City spokeswoman Kim Melchor said in an email that Colorado Springs' executive branch "does not support the high financial costs" of providing broadband to residents, which other cities have attempted to do with mixed results. She added that "there is extensive private sector broadband availability" within the city.

Risks and benefits

In addition to the potential benefit of faster, more affordable internet for citizens, cities that invest in a fiber-optic network also better position themselves to support emerging technologies, such as 5G wireless networks, Zelenok said. Better internet access can also drive economic growth and job creation, he said.

But there are risks. Cities may spend too much and not be able to recoup their costs, or they might not be able to find an operator to use what they've built, he said.

Pete Kirchhof, executive vice president of the Colorado Telecommunications Association, said in a statement that citizens should be weary of the pitfalls of government involvement in the internet business.

"Governments should not be able to use taxpayer dollars to overbuild existing networks and then compete against private companies for customers," said Kirchhof, whose organization represents broadband providers in many of the state's rural areas. "And taxpayers should be wary of ways in which government can use tax dollars and utility revenue to prop up public broadband networks."

Mark Soltes, CenturyLink's vice president of public affairs for Colorado, said in a statement that "public-private partnerships" between governments and internet companies are a solution that's better for all players.

"These creative solutions can bring the technologies communities need and the expertise to run a network, as well as the ability to plan for future upgrades in a dynamic environment where technology changes rapidly, while limiting the financial risk to citizens," he said.

A new law may offer financial support for such partnerships. The bill, which Gov. John Hickenlooper signed last month, will take money from a fund that long has subsidized rural telephone service and invest in broadband construction. Legislative analysts estimate more than $115 million will go to broadband grants for providers between 2019 and 2023.

The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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