Teller hits technology funding jackpot

Screen-Shot-2014-02-07-at-1.02.06-PMTeller hits technology funding jackpot

Rick Langenberg

Teller County may soon ride the next broadband digital wave, or at least enter the 21st century when it comes to cellular phone service and emergency radios.

Or at the very least, residents may encounter fewer dead zones when drastically trying to make cell calls, receive e-mails and in contacting fire department responders.

As expected, the Teller area succeeded in landing a $75,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for the development of a strategic, high-tech broadband plan.

The bulk of the money will come from the state, but the grant also includes a $18,750 combined match from a slew of local entities, such as Teller County, the cities of Cripple Creek, Woodland Park and Victor and the two school districts (RE-1 and RE-2). The announcement of the technology grant was made during a recent meeting by the Teller County Commissioners.

The study, expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2016, will address broadband, Internet technology in the region and identify big gaps, along with cellular phone service and emergency radio communications.

And according to Teller County Commission Vice-Chairman Norm Steen, this grant is just the beginning of what he sees as great funding opportunities for broadband technology improvements in rural areas like Teller. Steen is a key leader of the Local Planning Technology Committee, which will soon pick a contractor for the study.

Following the study, leaders hope the stage could be set for the development of more communications towers and infrastructure to boost the region’s technology offerings and phone service. This could become the starting point for making the county more technologically compatible for cell phone use and high speed Internet and for employing a variety of mobile and wireless devices and emergency radios. This could pave the way for more money for the providers of these services and lead to necessary changes that don’t leave residents and communities out in the cold.

“This is more than just about technology. It is about economic development and public safety,” said Steen, when the program was announced two months ago, and Teller applied for the grant.

Under the new state technological focus, local cities and governments can’t operate any of these burgeoning communication-related infrastructure systems, as they would have to lease them out. They would be allowed, though, to own these systems.

“It is very exciting,” said Steen, during a recent commissioners meeting. He noted that a huge federal and state push has occurred to bring many communities into the modern, digital age. Unlike past bids, this time the governments are handing out significant cash for the development of communications strategy plans and for building new technology-related infrastructure. Steen also reported much involvement in the program by the Federal Communications Commission. He cited a treasure chest of up to $20 million in available grants.

Tough times for local phone users

The timing of the latest grant couldn’t have occurred at a better time.

Despite all the talk about broadband enhancements, the spring of 2015 turned into a mini-communications disaster for communities in the Teller high country due to storm-related power outages, extended dark periods and dead cellular zones. In fact, many communities experienced communications woes that resembled the 1970s, forget about the 21st century. It is estimated that one of these outages cost the Cripple Creek gaming community millions of dollars.

Also, some residents have contacted The Mountain Jackpot recently to complain about problems they have experienced in obtaining new Internet service by one of the main communication providers in the state. They were told that the company can only service existing customers for new services. And if they tried their luck with a different, smaller communications outlet, they were informed they could experience significant delays in receiving high speed Internet.

This growing communications void is a reality that local cities and communities in Teller County have struggled with and obtained little success. For example, Victor’s plight to secure cell phone service has become a frustrating ordeal mainly due to market realities and mountain restrictions. In addition, receiving a cell phone call in Florissant or Green Mountain Falls is next to impossible, and some parts of the county are greatly hampered in obtaining high speed Internet, a problem that impacts economic development and small business activity. Plus, some major providers have faced financial restrictions in building mega towers that may only serve several hundred people.

Horror stories regarding communications problems in the high country aren’t unusual. In an earlier interview, Steen said that the new grant and initiative would evaluate Teller’s shortcomings for broadband, Internet technology, cellular phone use and emergency radios. He said Teller is the only area in Colorado that is doing a county-wide study.

The Local Planning Technology Committee, which includes representatives from around the county and will play a key role in overseeing the new grant, meets the second Monday of every month at the Ute Pass Cultural Center, starting at 9 a.m.