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Broadband access expands in Bayfield

More 'last-mile' service needed, town manager reports

Cooperation between the Town of Bayfield and FastTrack Communication has improved the fiber optic broadband network in town and the connection to the outside world, but homes and maybe some businesses have yet to benefit.

Town Manager Chris La May gave an update on the town's broadband efforts to the town board on Nov. 1.

With a share of grant money for regional broadband, the town installed fiber optic a couple of years ago to create a looped system. Through a 20-year agreement, the town traded access on the new fiber for use of 12 strands of existing FastTrack fiber in town as part of the loop, instead of the town putting in duplicate fiber there.

According to Times archives, FastTrack contracted with the school district in 2005 to link the schools with fiber. The town and county also contributed to connect the town hall (where the Pine River Heritage Society Museum is now), the county road and bridge shop (where the senior center is now). There was no fiber link to the outside world.

FastTrack and its majority owner, La Plata Electric Association, brought fiber from Highway 172 in 2013 or 2014, up County Road 509 to Bayfield Parkway to create that link. The town fiber connects there and goes north along the parkway.

The combined loop system has improved broadband service for town facilities, the school district, and other public buildings in town, with excess town fiber available to lease to private internet service providers. Cedar Networks has leased some of that and markets to business customers but not individual homes, La May told the Times. FastTrack also does not provide residential service, he said.

La May recounted the history of the project. The Southwest Colorado Regional Council of Government (the CoG), which serves five counties, got a $3 million regional grant in 2010 from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). "The purpose was to build a state-of-the-art network for public entities" with more transmission speed, more bandwidth (how much data can be uploaded or downloaded at one time), and things like Voice over Internet Protocol. The issue that started all this is that CenturyLink said there was no business case to do it, La May said.

Participating local governments contributed another $1 million as a local match. According to Times archives from 2012, Bayfield contributed $102,440 and received $307,322 from the grant.

La May clarified that the original cost estimate for a loop around Bayfield was $400,000, with $100,000 of that from the town. "What we soon realized is the costs were more, and we needed to trim back the distance." But then the town was able to partner with the La Plata/ Archuleta Water District and use a shared trench when LAPLAWD installed a water main line along Bayfield Parkway. That brought the town cost down to get fiber north of Highway 160 to connect with FastTrack fiber in the Bayfield Center business park. But much of the original loop is still to be done - such as north to Dove Ranch Road, east to the end of Dove Ranch Road and then south to 160.

Bayfield buys broadband service through the CoG. The regional nature of it allows for aggregation of demand from participating communities to get better rates from providers, share IT applications, and increase redundancy into and out of the region, La May said.

"So where do we go from here?" he asked. "Are we fully utilizing this?"

He gave an presentation created by Diane Kruse from NEOConnect, the company that the CoG hired to do a regional broadband planning effort. The work of expanding broadband isn't done, but DOLA wants more planning up front before it provides more money, La May said. He expected the regional plan to be in draft form by Nov. 4, although as of Nov. 8 he hadn't seen it. It includes "middle mile" improvements from one community to another, and "last mile" connections at an affordable price for business and residential customers.

Kruse's presentation listed middle mile cost projections at $27 to $40 million for the five counties, depending on whether the fiber is above ground, which is cheaper, or underground. A Rural Health Care grant could reduce that to $10 to $15 million, La May said. And the Colorado Department of Transportation might be willing to share some of the cost to connect their own facilities on main highways, he said.

Kruse's presentation listed a cost estimate of $1.1 to $1.8 million for the mid-mile connection between Bayfield and Ignacio. La May told the Times that would provide redundancy with the FastTrack fiber on CR 509 to Hwy. 172.

For the last-mile connections, Kruse estimated $6.2 million for around 958 households in Bayfield, and $2.29 million for around 303 households in Ignacio.

There are various ways of doing this, La May said, from a totally privately built and operated network to one owned and operated as a city utility, such as in Longmont. "There are in-between combinations of public and private," including a city lease-purchase agreement with a private provider, he said.

According to Kruse's report, providers say the services and broadband speed are available now, but people aren't willing to pay the price, La May said.

"The CoG is mainly working on the middle mile with the Rural Health Network and CDOT. The CoG position is the towns will be responsible for how they do the last mile. We as a community may want to consider those various options," and maybe the town's own request for proposals, he said. "That's something I'll probably bring back (to trustees) in the future."

Trustee Michelle Nelson-Yost said, "The last mile in each community and county is so different that it's almost impossible to do it as a region. The middle mile is easy to agree on."

Mayor Matt Salka commented, "I think it's very important for Bayfield. It will attract more business to Bayfield. It's their first question" when they are considering locating in the town.