Despite the fact that Teller prides itself as a conservative area adhering to a “hands-off” philosophy pertaining to government involvement in private enterprise, the county commissioners, in slightly different twist from this stance, have unanimously approved a new $80,000 telecommunications’ consultant study and future plan.
These 100-plus page documents give the county their marching orders, as far as proposals to increase broadband Internet and cell phone service in the high country, along with enhanced emergency radio communications, with the help of federal, state and local governments and private companies.
The study was funded by a variety of entities in Teller, including local cities, school districts and the county, but with the bulk of the money coming from a state grant. The telecommunications study work began about a year ago.
According to Teller County Commissioner Norm Steen, who has been involved with a local technology planning committee, the study plan is the stepping stone for efforts to snag more than $9 million in government grants for a vastly improved broadband infrastructure network. This would feature a fiber-optic link between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek/Victor, extending through much of Teller County, with a good chunk of this network being located underground. The exact route hasn’t been determined yet for a project that could cost about $15 million, according to Steen. However, the county and participating entities have a good chance of receiving funding for this effort, according to preliminary estimates.
The plan also calls for the development of government partnerships between the county and Internet and telecommunications providers. These companies would play a role in providing service between government facilities/public buildings and local residents and businesses, often referred to as the “last mile.”
In addition, the consultant study and action plan recommends the forming of a non-profit organization with the participating communities and counties to generate more grant funding and to “create an advocacy team.”
Ultimately, county leaders say they want to see much better service, especially in rural areas outside of Woodland Park. Another area that is part of the study focus, encompasses the western part of El Paso County, including Green Mountain Falls, Chipita Park and Cascade. In many parts of this area, cell phone service is practically non-existent.
However, in order for the program to really get off the ground, voters would have to approve a new ballot proposition, allowing the government to free itself from state restrictions that bar any partnerships with providers in the telecommunications arena. Currently, local governments can’t engage in any types of partnerships or lease arrangements with Internet and telecommunications providers.
At last week’s meeting, and in a letter to the editor, Steen emphasized that the county doesn’t want to compete with Internet and telecommunications providers, but wants to help pave the way for better service. According to the study, done by the Glenwood Springs-based NEO Connect firm, not many Teller residents currently qualify as having broadband service, based on the guidelines provided by the Federal Communications Commission.
Leave private enterprise alone
However, this sentiment isn’t shared by all Internet experts. At last week’s meeting, Austin Weatherford, an operator for Peak Internet, voiced opposition to the consultant study and the recommendations made by the Glenwood Springs firm. He said the current broadband scenario in Teller County could be better handled by private enterprise, rather than government involvement. “We feel it is not necessary,” said Weatherford, in regards to involving a bevy of state and local agencies.
In a recent article, published in The Mountain Jackpot, Jayson Baker, owner of Peak Internet, expressed many concerns with the consultant study and made it clear their company staunchly opposes the new ballot question proposed by Teller County and other nearby municipalities. They don’t believe the county should get involved in the Internet and telecommunications business.
Weatherford shared these same concerns with the commissioners at last week’s hearing. “We are already doing this,” said Weatherford, when describing the massive amount of infrastructure work and tower development undertaken by Peak Internet. Moreover, he stated that the company has done a considerable amount of fiber-optic links throughout the county. “We are providing that service.”
According to Weatherford, the company is currently planning on major expansions in the Cripple Creek area.
“That is commendable,” replied Steen, who lauded the work undertaken by Peak Internet. But that said, he objected to any suggestions that the county wants an adverse relationship with their company through its proposed telecommunications plan. “We are not attempting to compete,” said the Teller Commission Chairman.
Instead, the commissioner emphasized that the recommendations made by the study would further boost the broadband Internet service capabilities in the county, along with making other improvements in the areas of cell phone coverage and emergency communications.
Both commissioners Marc Dettenrieder and Dave Paul echoed similar sentiments. Dettenrieder cited the study’s emphasis on the county, through joint government/provider partnerships, acting as a “facilitator” and not an entity that replaces the current services. “We are not directed to act as a service provider,” said the commissioner.
The commissioners also asked Weatherford about the number of homes and businesses they service outside of Woodland Park. Weatherford said he didn’t have those specific details, but estimated that the company serves at least 2,500 customers in Teller County.
According to Steen, sections outside of Woodland are where the main gaps now exist in offering service, based on surveys and public meetings conducted during the consultant study. He said the main findings of the study indicated major complaints about the current level of services in rural areas outside of Woodland Park.