Connect Silverton

Silverton was assured Monday it will have a functional broadband connection by next September. And that is great news – if it is to be believed.

But the town has heard all this before, more than a few times and from more than a few directions. Its town leaders can be forgiven if they take all of this with a healthy side of scepticism.

Speaking to legislators in Denver, Eagle-Net President Michael Ryan said a $3.5 million investment by a private Texas company, Affiniti, will allow for completion of the project. This is after Eagle-Net, which was first formed by several school districts, received a $100 million federal grant to link schools statewide.

Affiniti’s $3.5 million is part of a larger deal, one in which the company agreed to kick in $15 million in total and take over operation of Eagle-Net’s work – the one built with public money. U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, has asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to look into the deal.

Absent the Affiniti money, Ryan said, Eagle-Net would only be able to tie into 63 percent or 64 percent of the state’s schools. But it is now aiming to connect 80 percent of school districts by the end of 2014 – except that Ryan later told a different audience that getting to 80 percent could take four years.

To Silverton, this must sound like an old, familiar refrain: Next year, next month, tomorrow if we can, or if not then, at least before long, maybe.

The state had promised high-speed Internet access to every county seat. In 2000, US West – later Qwest and now called CenturyLink – agreed to a $37 million contract to bring high-speed Internet to every Colorado county seat by 2003. A later supplemental agreement extended the deadline for Silverton to 2005.

But even then, Qwest stopped 16 miles short at Cascade Village, claiming it could not secure right-of-way. Instead, it set up a microwave connection and claimed that satisfied the conditions of the contract for “equivalent services.”

But Qwest never even talked to anyone about the obvious right-of-way leading into Silverton – the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. And a microwave connection was hardly equivalent in 2005. In 2013, it is woefully inadequate.

Eagle-Net says it is now taking proposals to build the first section of the broadband line to Silverton. That section will run from Durango to Cascade Village – 16 miles from Silverton.

But is that not the section Qwest built a decade ago? Is that just duplication, and if so, why? The knock against Eagle-Net from the start was that it came up short of funds because it spent too much time and money duplicating networks along the Front Range. Perhaps if it could use the Qwest – now CenturyLink – tie-in, it could spend more on the last 16 miles to Silverton.

That is all speculation, of course, but here is what is not: Silverton was promised years ago that, as a county seat, it would get high-speed Internet connectivity. It was effectively promised access again when Eagle-Net accepted millions of federal dollars to provide high-speed access to all of Colorado school districts. It is time to honor those promises.

While there is hope that Eagle-Net, especially cash from its new Texas affiliate, can actually fulfill its promise to bring high-speed Internet to Silverton and San Juan County, the example of Qwest offers little hope. So, failing quick action, government should get involved.

State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and state Rep. Michael McLachlan, D-Durango – both of whom represent San Juan County – would do well to look into this. Silverton has been ignored long enough.

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