Rising from the Dark Ages Local Governments Seek Escape Route from Internet Restrictions-Rick Langenberg

Government-and-technology

Much of Teller County and the lower Ute Pass still can’t rise from the Dark Ages, when it comes to offering quality, broadband, Internet technology and cellular phone service.

As a result, local governments may be forced to rescue off the grid communities with some major assistance from Uncle Sam and the state of Colorado and major communications providers

But in order for Teller to take a major technological leap and enter the broadband super highway, voters will ultimately have to give the okay to allow the government to escape state restrictions that bars them from entering the telecommunications arena. If they choose to loosen the noose and join many communities around the state, then the county and other governments could try to finance major pro-infrastructure projects and secure millions in available broadband grants.

However, this option would involve new territory for a county that has taken a hand-off approach, when it comes to possibly competing with private enterprise.

These were the highlights of several meetings last week, hosted by the Teller County government, and headed by the Glenwood Spring-based NEO Fiber company. This consultant company is currently compiling a $75,000 study aimed at giving the region a roadmap for solving its technological woes.

“We need help,” admitted Norm Steen, the vice-chairman of the Teller County Commissioners, who heads the Local Planning Technology Committee, formed last year to evaluate ways to bring the local area into the 21st century.

“How are you going to build a house without a plan,” said Steen, when addressing an enthusiastic group of rural residents last week at the Florissant Public Library. They sought answers to their current plight, capped by extremely limited Internet and phone services. Many rely on satellite installations to obtain basic services. These problems are further exacerbated by the fact that many locals in rural parts of the county run businesses from their homes.

According to Steen, the study is aimed at discovering “what we have now, where do we need to go and how do we fill that gap.”

And Teller faces a monumental task. “You guys have very pitiful service,” admitted Diane Kruse, the founder of NEO Fiber, and the main person leading the current study.

Based on preliminary results of an on-line survey, she stated that only about five percent of area residents actually qualify in meeting the definition of having broadband Internet service, based on the guidelines provided the Federal Communications Commission. The definition sets the broadband standard at service that offers 25 megabits per second.

And what is more scary is that the cost for providing better improving service is now 30 to 50 times higher in the high country, compared to the national average of $1.35 per megabit. “That is a huge problem from an economic development standpoint,” said the consultant.

According to Kruse, the answer to Teller’s communication hinges on more collaboration among local government, the state and feds and commercial providers. “We need to start that community conversation, said Kruse. She even cited the Colorado Department of Transportation as a key player due to the resources they have in supplying optic/fiber capabilities.

A tough road ahead
However, such a proposition is easier said than done in an area that values its independence from government agencies. Steen said the county has to be careful about “picking winners and losers,” if it plays a more dominant role in the telecommunications arena.

But both Steen and Kruse outlined a potential gold mine of grant opportunities, if the county and other governments got more involved in trying to solve the problem.

One scenario envisioned by Kruse involves having government entities, through grants, trying to finance optic/fiber connections between Colorado Springs and communities in Teller, and then have service providers take care of the rest. Even with the current restrictions, she said government entities could do connections to many public buildings, such as fire stations and libraries. The government can’t provide broadband fiber connections to the home based on current rules, according to the consultant.

Many residents who attended a meeting at the Florissant Public Library didn’t opposed the idea of more government involvement. They mainly wanted results and questioned the timing of major technology infrastructure projects. “Our challenge here is demographics,” said one resident. He noted that Florissant’s technological woes are similar to other problems it and other rural areas have faced from a variety of service providers.

Most people supported the idea of having the government opt-out of current telecommunications restrictions. Such a proposition could appear on the Nov. 2016 ballot in Teller County. The town of Green Mountain Falls, which has encountered major problems with cellular phone service for years, is slated to discuss the issue at its next board meeting on Dec. 15. It also may put an opt-out question on the ballot for its next election in the spring of 2016.

Already, this idea has been a popular ballot initiative. According to Kruse, dozens of counties and communities in Colorado have approved opt-out provisions by overwhelming margins.

However, even if the measure passes, the county must overcome significant hurdles. “Who is going to plant the seed? Who is going to own it? How do we get financing?” These were some questions raised by Steen, in describing future challenges.

Even if Teller lands some major grants, he noted that it would have to come to the table with some significant matching funds. Steen also outlined the possibility of subdivisions or neighborhoods establishing a special taxing district, if they want to obtain better service on their own.

Kruse said she plans to develop a plan that is workable for Teller County and the lower Ute Pass area.

The forthcoming study will outline detailed costs, expected to soar in the millions, for a major technological initiative in the area. The study should be completed by April or May of 2016. It also will examine problems with cellular phone service and emergency radio communications.