Rising From the Dark Ages Pursuit of Internet payoff may strike jackpot- Rick Langenberg

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The super highway of ultra-high speed, Internet access could light up locally with a $9 million-plus funding boom in the near future, financed by Uncle Sam and the state government.

More importantly, the path could open for local providers to offer more affordable broadband service through a lease agreement with local government partners to make these connections possible, with speeds that could exceed 1,000 megabits per second. Only one catch remains: Voters in Teller County and in area municipalities must give the okay at the ballot box.

However, if current trends prevail, local residents could follow the footsteps of most Coloradans in opting to free government entities from the restrictions imposed by state legislation that bars them from entering the telecommunications arena in any way. If voters choose to loosen the noose and join many communities around the state, then the county and other governments could try to finance major Internet-related nfrastructure projects and secure millions in available broadband grants.

And based on a preliminary report, the prospects now look promising for Teller to secure $9.2 million worth of government funding to establish infrastructure for developing major broadband improvements extending between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek/Victor and covering major thoroughfares in Teller, including Hwys. 24 and Teller 1. “This could be done with no taxpayer money,” said Norm Steen, the chairman of the Teller County Commisison and a key member of the Local Planning Technology Committee, during a briefing last week. “This is a very important issue.”

Steen and other leaders contend that Teller’s technological woes are hampering economic development pursuits and posing a danger for emergency services.

Steen last week briefly outlined highlights of an interim draft report of a $75,000 technology study, orchestrated by Teller County, the three municipalities and the two school districts.

He admits the recommendations offer a definite deviation from a county that has taken a hands-off approach in government getting involved in private enterprise. But he says this plan would allow Teller and the lower Ute Pass to open the door for the infrastructure development for broadband Internet service in the high country, and to permit local providers to offer competitive rates for residents and businesses. “We are not picking winners or losers. We are just making this available,” explained Steen.

Grants by the federal government, funded by a designated pro-technology fee on consumer phone bills, and with the state Department of Local Affairs, could pave the way for $9.2 million in necessary telecommunications infrastructure. Another key player would be the Colorado Department of Transportation, which would provide much of the optic/fiber capabilities and connections throughout the Ute Pass and much of the Teller County to make the process work. Then the last stage calls for possible local government partners to lease out the “excess amount” of optic-fiber resources to local providers at an affordable rate.
The last phase is critical and is the one area that is not currently allowed, unless voters agree to opt-out from current government restrictions.

Currently, local providers, such as CenturyLink and Peak Internet, have faced obstacles with the costs of providing broadband Internet service to residents and businesses. These costs are estimated at more than 30 to 50 times in the high country from those of the national average, according to consultants. They have cited these costs as a huge economic development obstacle.
And based on the current guidelines of the Federal Communications Commission, Teller lingers in the Dark Ages, with less than 5 percent of the residents meeting the definition of broadband, estimated at Internet access service that reach speeds of 25 megabits per second. The average speed by users in Teller is estimated at 2 megabits.

With the new technology funding jackpot, this speed would dramatically increase and make broadband Internet access more affordable for providers and users. But Steen cautioned that these funding details haven’t been finalized.

The Need for Government/Private Partnerships
During a meeting last winter, Steen and other key technology leaders admitted that local entities and private companies couldn’t tackle this task alone. Most of these county forums were highlighted by horror stories regarding Internet and cell phone service in the region.

“We need help,” admitted Steen, during a forum in Florissant last December.

The preliminary results of public meetings and online surveys last year, as part of the technology study, indicated extreme dissatisfaction with current service levels. “You guys have very pitiful service,” admitted Diane Kruse, the founder of the Glenwood Springs-based NEO Fiber, and the main person authoring the current technology study.

But how to fill the current communications gaps posed more questions than answers. Last winter, Kruse admitted it may take major community discussions to get the ball rolling and to establish partnerships between the state and federal government, local entities and telecommunications companies.

Steen even hinted that residents may have to choose between road improvements and broadband enhancements during a forum last winter.

But now, it appears the county and lower Ute Pass has a possible funding source. In addition, Steen says that more dialogue is occurring between government officials and providers, such as Peak Internet and CenturyLink, regarding this issue.

However, county and city leaders now have to lobby for support of a ballot issue that would allow governments to opt out of current telecommunications restrictions that bar local entities from getting involved in the communications arena. Steen is optimistic that such an issue will appear on the Nov. ballot in Teller County. This idea is also heavily supported by Cripple Creek and Woodland Park officials.

These opt-out votes have been approved by overwhelming margins in many communities and counties in Colorado.