Teller residents will soon have a chance to voice their opinions about their Internet and cellular phone services and other communication obstacles in the high country.
But don’t look for immediate improvements, as the input generated is part of a $75,000 study, orchestrated through a state grant and involving three local cities, two school districts and the county. And recently, parts of western El Paso County, including Green Mountain Falls, announced plans to jump on board in an effort to enhance their communities’ broadband Internet coverage and improve cellular coverage and emergency radio communications. The final study is expected to be completed in March 2016.
A series of public meetings will be held at the end of November and early December throughout the county.
“We really want to receive public input and hear what people have to say about the services they are currently receiving and what needs to be improved,” said Norm Steen, vice-chairman of the Teller County Board of County Commissioners, and a leader of the Local Planning Technology Committee. This group authorized a comprehensive study with the Glenwood Springs-based NEO Fiber company.
The public forums will consist of three meetings, kicking off on Monday, Nov. 30 at the Cripple Creek High School with a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m.; another session planned for Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Ute Pass Cultural Center; and a final meeting slated for Wednesday, Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. in the Florissant Public Library.
The meetings come in the wake of two on-line surveys, conducted by NEO Fiber, which targeted both residents and business owners regarding their current Internet services. According to Steen, nearly 200 people responded to the surveys.
“We were amazed at the the level of dissatisfaction that many people had with their current services,” said Steen. In fact, based on the current definition of broadband Internet, 95 percent of the county doesn’t qualify for receiving this level of high-speed service. Another big obstacle is the cost for enhancing communication services in the high country, based on preliminary engineering work done by the consultants.
Steen hopes the study serves as a catalyst for spearheading major communication and technology enhancements in the high country. He notes that the timing is ideal, with a pot of potential state and federal grants available to rural areas.
The consultants will eventually compile a list of recommendations for improvements and devise an overall game plan. One of these may involve the controversial issue of whether local governments should play a more dominate role in financing the infrastructure for better services, or entering the broadband arena themselves. A current state law bars governments from competing with current technology providers.
But local communities can exempt themselves from these restrictions through voter approval, and this is becoming a more common trend in rural areas. In the most recent election, 26 cities and 17 counties in Colorado chose this route. Most of these pro-technology tallies occurred in rural parts of the state, according to Steen.
Steen says this issue of public financing will probably be addressed in the forthcoming study results.
The study has been a cooperative effort involving the cities of Woodland Park, Cripple Creek and Victor, along with the RE-1 and RE-2 school districts and the county. Each entity put up $3,125, with the lion’s share of the grant money coming from the state Department of Local Affairs. Besides local governments, several regional providers have been included in the process.
However, the study has sparked some criticism, with company operators and residents questioning why $75,000 should be allocated to evaluate a situation that most people are well aware of: Teller County lacks significant infrastructure to provide quality Internet and cellular phone service. They argue that the money should be invested into financing needed communications towers and funding necessary ground-work with current providers.
“This money will be wasted on a consultant to tell the county what we already know. We know where the weak spots are and what needs to be improved,” said Jayson Baker of Peak Internet, in a previous e-mail to The Mountain Jackpot regarding the awarding of the grant.“We asked for the county’s assistance in planning the expansion of our network to service these areas. Month after month our requests were blatantly ignored and blown off.”
Regardless, Baker said Peak Internet is proceeding full-speed ahead with a major expansion that includes 18 tower sites and major work to offer premiere optic/fiber capabilities. More recently, Peak Internet and the city of Woodland Park reached a compromise on work done on public right-of-ways and public streets. Baker said he was amazed at the lack of awareness by the consultants regarding the new rules proposed in Woodland Park, which would have a vastly big impact on the company’s future, and ultimately, the Internet future of many parts of the county.
Steen, though, says the technology study represents the first stage in the process. “How are you going to build a house without a plan,” questioned Steen, in discussing the need for the study. In a previous interview when the consultant study was announced, he noted, “We need to know what we like to have and how do we get there.”
Lower Ute Pass ready to join the pro-technology movement
Another entity that wants to be included in this study and the future pro-technology effort is El Paso County. Several communities in western El Paso have experienced technology shortcomings for years. In fact, making or receiving a cell phone call from GMF is next to impossible.
In a recent letter sent to the state from Amy Lathen, chairperson of the El Paso County Commissioners, the commission requested an additional $29,4000 be added to the current technology study. This money, according to the request, would be used to assist Green Mountain Falls, Cascade and Chipita Park, the Ute Pass Elementary School, the Cascade Fire Department and the GMF/Chipita Park Fire Department.
“Collaborating with pubic and private institutions in the Ute Pass study area will help fill the Internet coverage gaps between mountain communities in western El Paso and Teller counties and increase overall regional benefits,” said Lathen, in the commission’s letter.
With this request, the same company, NEO Fiber, would still be in charge of doing the study.