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Voters asked to lift restrictions on local fiber-optic lines

Improved Internet services could benefit businesses and consumers

When it comes to broadband, there’s substantial room for improvement throughout La Plata County.

Up until Nov. 3, registered voters in Bayfield, Durango, Ignacio and La Plata County will consider a ballot question that would effectively overturn restrictions imposed by a 2005 state law, Senate Bill 152, which limits the amount of infrastructure local governments can lease to provide Internet, cable and telecommunications services. Archuleta and San Juan counties are also putting the matter to a vote.

The industry quashed the Colorado Municipal League’s efforts to amend the legislation earlier this year, so communities decided to consider “opt out” measures at the local polls. About 10 communities throughout the state have already approved such a measure. The ballot initiative received approval from each of the three municipal governing boards and the county governing board. Language in the ballot measure would permit local governments to directly provide broadband services, but none in La Plata County has indicated plans to do so. Rather, officials will likely lease existing infrastructure to private companies, which would bring competitive pricing on these services to consumers.

If voters approve, small service providers, local businesses and residents whose service is lacking stand to see major improvements.

Durango Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jack Llewellyn said the November vote could open up the free market and lend a major hand to telecommuters.

“We have a lot of lone eagles that rely on broadband,” Llewellyn said. “There are IT tech writers, app writers and others here that work out of their homes and need reliable Internet service.”

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011-2013 American Community Survey, the county has the 19th highest share of home-based workers.

“I get 10 megabytes per second at my house, which isn’t bad, but where I came from, I got 100 megabytes per second,” said Chris McCroskey, a Durango-based work-from-homer who cofounded international software company IdeaLoop. Internet access allows McCroskey to live locally off Colorado Highway 172, though his company is based in Dallas. “If you’re outside Durango proper, it’s hard to get high-speed Internet access,” he said.

Such access could impact the worth of homes. Experts at the University of Colorado and Carnegie Mellon University released a study this year that claimed fiber-optic connections could boost the value of a $175,000 home by as much as $5,437.

Durango has about 19 miles of infrastructure, 14 of which are contracted out. But the city could lease more if voters lift the state-imposed restrictions. Much of the city’s conduit runs the length of Main Avenue on either side from Fifth Street to 15th Street downtown. Most recently, the city installed infrastructure to the Tech Center at 10 Burnett Court, where the county plans to relocate some administrative offices. County officials named Vallecito among the communities suffering most from lack of service.

While some facilities within Durango School District 9-R share city fiber optics, elementary schools including Animas Valley, Fort Lewis Mesa, Sunnyside and Needham receive service from a wireless radio Internet connection. Service could improve for these schools if the ballot item passes, said 9-R Director of Education Technology Zach Mather.

From an economic standpoint, Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc expects a revenue boost if private service providers are given the green light.

“It would benefit the private sector in that it creates jobs, which equates to lodgers tax and sales tax,” LeBlanc said. “I’d expect offices with 10 or fewer to be coming in, but a lot of smaller businesses add up.”

La Plata County’s smaller municipalities have substantially less infrastructure; Ignacio has about a mile of fiber-optic line and conduit servicing municipal buildings and schools near Goddard Street. In Bayfield, Town Manager Chris La May said the business center, Bayfield Industrial Park and the downtown area would primarily reap benefits from a “Yes” vote this fall.

“The hope is that, especially in Bayfield, we can attract more business, because in today’s world, for some businesses, it’s probably more critical that they have telecommunications than water services,” La May said. “The driving force here is economic development and keeping pace with what’s available.”

jpace@durangoherald.com

Sep 17, 2021
Faster Internet on the horizon in downtown Durango, rural Southwest Colorado
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