Reeves Brown got it right. Brown, executive director of the state’s Department of Local Affairs, was in Durango last week meeting with La Plata County commissioners and city of Durango officials. The occasion was the pending completion of the Southwest Colorado Access Network linking area towns with high-speed Internet.

Explaining that he sees broadband Internet as important today as paved roads were in an earlier era, Brown said, “I view broadband as the asphalt of this century.”

While perhaps not the most poetic metaphor, in economic terms, he is correct. From the Erie Canal to railroads to the Interstate Highway System and jet airplanes, transportation was the economic driver of the industrial era. And that march continues with the Internet and telecommunications in the Information Age. In today’s world, not having Internet access really is akin to trying to do business with horse-drawn wagons.

All the more important then, that SCAN is proceeding and apparently working. The three-year-old project began with a $3 million grant from Brown’s department, with local governments providing $1 million in matching funds. Its mission is to build a private telecommunications network backed by publicly owned or leased infrastructure to connect government buildings in Durango, Pagosa Springs, Cortez, Silverton, Dolores and Dove Creek with high-speed Internet. That will involve fire protection, search and rescue, police and other critical agencies to take advantage of advanced technology as well connect area hospitals, schools and libraries.

Private Internet service providers also will be able to tie in. Their inclusion in the program is a requirement of the grant. That should also enable more residents to connect.

That remains an issue, in part because, as the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments puts it on its website, “Southwest Colorado communities exist at the endpoint of the nation’s telecommunications networks and are not fully integrated into the larger digital world.”

In other words, as with air travel, highways and rail service, we pay a price for living in a remote and sparsely populated region. Unlike with those, however, high-speed Internet access is not dependent on the good will of others. Three million would not buy much of a highway, for example, and air service is at least in part a function of the whims of airline executives.

But SCAN, while working with funding help from the state, is a local effort that can be tailored to local needs. And it is a good effort that should help boost Southwest Colorado’s connection to the digital universe. That, in turn, could enable area businesses to compete nationally and even globally while also offering local residents better opportunities and better service in education, medicine, communication and government.

Central to the project is the notion of “high-capacity connectivity at reasonable operational costs.” What that means on the ground is that Internet access will be delivered through fiber, or wireless when fiber is not feasible. That also speaks to a national problem.

While the SCAN project promises a necessary and welcome improvement, the nation as a whole lags behind much of the world. The United States does have a national plan to expand access and bandwidth, complete with lofty goals, but what constitutes “high speed” or “broadband” is too often defined in terms that simply do not reflect evolving uses. Other nations – Germany and South Korea are examples – have realistic plans to ensure universal Internet access at speeds much higher than what is typically available here.

Perhaps the Southwest Colorado Access Network is an example of how to narrow that gap. It is certainly an example of what we need to help prosper in the future.

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