On paper and at public forums, the pro-communications plan sounds great.
Teller residents and businesses will hit the jackpot with millions in telecommunications enhancements; they will get much better service through top-notch broadband, government-funded infrastructure; they won’t discover any more dead zones when making cell calls or receiving e-mails and text messages; and better yet, they will be rescued at any place in the county when they get lost or injured by making a mere call or posting an emergency posting to a local fire department.
And all in all, communications in the local region will rise from the Dark Ages. Just vote yes on the county’s so-called pro-telecommunications bill, allowing for an opt-out from previous state restrictions from Senate Bill-152 that bars any government partnerships in the communications arena.
Well, hold on and be careful for what you wish for. In fact, you may have to decide between funding the costs for the county’s new technology plan, and those endorsed in other municipalities, and paying more for road improvements and other services. After all, no government programs are free of charge.
Moreover, Teller may not get the buy-in from local Internet providers to hook onto the government’s wonder technology link. More notably, the cost estimates for a fiber-optic connection between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek, extending through much of Teller, are just plain wrong.
Instead, telecommunications and government consultants could end up as the big winners and Teller residents will be sold a bag of goods.
That’s the sentiments of Jayson Baker, the main operator and owner of Peak Internet, which has made major improvements in offering reliable broadband service to many residents in Teller County. The company, which started about 15 years ago, has completed 23 repeater sites and invested millions in expansion efforts in the last few years.
“The county has no business being in the telecommunications business. What we need is more collaboration (from the government) and less competition,” said Baker.
Baker said he plans to mount a public information campaign, informing voters of the impacts of the so-called pro-telecommunications ballot proposal, promoted by Teller elected leaders, which has been touted as a “no brainer.”
However, if the new ballot proposal passes, Baker said Peak Internet may put an immediate halt to all further expansion activity. “Why would we want to compete with the government?” questioned Baker.
Baker has been critical of the county’s telecommunications’ planning efforts in the past.
He questioned why the county allocated close to $80,000 for a study, outlying weaknesses in broadband Internet areas in Teller.
“They kept saying ‘we want to give you a plan. ‘I told them ‘we don’t need a plan to tell us what we already know.’”
According to Baker, he even offered to give the county Peak’s own market coverage and technology plan free of charge, and save the county tens of thousands of dollars, and to invest the money into solving the problem.
We aren’t in the Dark Ages
He also objects to the continual comparison of Teller’s broadband plight to that of the Dark Ages by the consulting firm for the project, the Glenwood Springs-based NEO Fiber company. According to Baker, this firm did previous work for a number of communities in the Western slope that had significant communications woes. To compare Teller’s situation to virtually “off the grid” communities in other parts of Colorado just didn’t make any sense, noted the local Internet company owner.
“We are not in the Dark Ages. There have been a lot of improvements. We have done a lot of expansions,” related Baker.
But what worries Baker and other Internet providers is that residents, through the pro-telecommunications ballot package, are being sold a package that is comprised of false figures and assumptions. “This just doesn’t seem like the best use of taxpayer money,” said Baker, in explaining the funds the county wants to rely on for paving the way for the “super highway” of broadband coverage.
Baker cites the cost estimates of establishing a fiber/optic line between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek for $9.2 million, as just plain ridiculous. “It will cost considerable more than that,” said the Peak Internet owner.
And to top matters off, he said his company has no intentions of hooking up with the infrastructure network being planned by the county, through a variety of state and federal grants, and with the help of the Colorado Department of Transportation. Baker said he has heard similar concerns voiced by other Internet providers.
“We already have a lot of that (fiber-optic network) in place,” said Baker. “Why not work with the existing businesses in improving what we have?”
If a buy-in by local and regional providers doesn’t occur, that could pose a problem for the county’s overall telecommunications program. Teller County and other local governments want Internet and telecommunications providers to offer service to actual residents and businesses from public buildings and entities, where the fiber/optic link is established.
Baker is also outraged that he wasn’t consulted during the writing of the pro-telecommunications ballot question. He says if he was involved in the process more, he contends that county could have an issue that he would have supported and lobbied for. According to the language of the ballot issue, Baker contends the Teller government would become a competitor. “I just can’t support this ballot question the way it is worded,” said Baker.
He says this lack of communications was a familiar problem during the consultant study, and an issue he spoke with Teller County Commission Chairman Norm Steen about. Steen, a member of a local technology committee, is the commissioner that spearheaded efforts to improve broadband Internet and cell phone service in Teller County.
Baker says even Steen was surprised of the massive investment Peak Internet made into improving its current system and in providing fast, and reliable broadband service throughout the county. “I was told, ‘how did we miss this,’” related Baker
However, Baker is the first to give Steen credit for prompting his company to do major expansion efforts. “Norm got me off my butt to really expand beyond Woodland Park. I will give him credit for that.”
Baker says Teller residents need to know that if these government-related telecommunications funding plans get escalated by massive amounts, they could end up holding the tax bag. “They may have to choose between getting their roads maintained and paying for these improvements,” said Baker.
He notes that nothing comes for free when it comes to government funding and that significant matching funds could be required. Plus, he cites a problem in having to pay for an additional consultant to implement the program.
A tough battle
Baker, though, realizes the pro-telecommunications bill has many supporters from local government officials and citizens. For example, local resident Phillip Irish, in a recent e-mail, noted, “It’s time to let the county provide facilitate, partner and/or coordinate with Internet providers interested in bringing fiber/optic service to our county. Whether you’re a home teleworker, a business owners a police, fire, school, library or hospital service provider, opting out (of the current state restrictions) will allow our county to move forward much faster, with other, more interested private partners and with more consideration of our unique needs.”
Steen also contends that the purpose of this effort is not to compete with the current providers, but to improve current services. He does agree with Baker about the cost projections for the fiber-optic line from Colorado Springs into Teller County due to requirements to build it in many areas underground. He now says the line will cost more than $11 million and it will occur over a three-year period.
Steen also emphasized that no local taxpayer dollars are involved. The broadband infrastructure project will be funded by the state and feds, with these monies coming from the state Department of Local Affairs, the Colorado Department of Transportation and Rural Health monies. In fact, he says a good portion of the funding comes from a small payment assessed on consumer telephone bills.
As far as the ballot issue, Steen said that the plan was approved during a public meeting. “This was a public process. People need to become engaged in the process.”
Steen says he hasn’t received hardly any complaints about the proposed pro-technology ballot plan. According to Steen, the main theme that emerged from the study was the need to improve the current level of broadband and cell phone services, especially in areas outside of Woodland Park.