La Plata County commissioners have joined 15 other counties on the Western Slope as well as the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe in approving a letter to Gov. Jared Polis requesting help in removing barriers that prevent access to broadband internet infrastructure running through the region.
Local governments are protesting the lack of access to critical broadband infrastructure that the telecommunications company Arcadian Infracom is installing between Denver and Phoenix along state right of way and calling on Polis to intervene.
“We are asking for your help to remove roadblocks and resolve delays in accessing State-owned fiber,” the letter reads.
In Colorado, Arcadian has entered into a contract with the Colorado Department of Transportation to install about 345 miles of cable from Denver to the New Mexico line, partially along CDOT right of way. Construction is underway to run cable over Wolf Creek Pass, through Pagosa and ultimately along U.S. Highway 160 veering south at the interchange with U.S. Highway 550 south of Durango.
The terms of Arcadian’s contract with CDOT prohibits using the infrastructure for anything other than “governmental, noncommercial, purposes.” It is this clause of the contract with which county and Indigenous governments take issue.
In Southwest Colorado, the exclusivity of the contract jeopardizes projects to connect rural homes and communities to the broadband “backbone” that are underway or will begin soon. Commissioner Matt Salka said the $4 million Colorado Highway 151 project to connect the region between Chimney Rock and Ignacio with high-speed internet is one such example. If middle-mile projects cannot tie into the backbone, the service provided to those rural zones will be compromised.
“This deal should not have happened from day one, in my opinion,” Salka said.
Archuletta County has received a $1.1 million grant to install infrastructure for a “local backbone” and a carrier neutral location at the hospital in Pagosa Springs, both if which are placed in jeopardy by the contract with Arcadian.
“We can install it, but it won’t be effective for its true purpose until that is resolved with CDOT,” said Archuleta County Broadband Services Technical Manager Eric Hittle.
Salka’s goal is to secure middle-mile access and redundancy. That would allow internet service providers to provide high-speed internet to homes and businesses at a competitive market price and ensure that entire communities are not cut off from access in the event that one line is severed. While other private companies, such as CenturyLink, can provide broadband internet to some communities, the lack of redundancy is a problem.
He wrote the letter with assistance from the Southwest Regional Broadband Coordinating Committee and presented it to the 16 counties of the Colorado Counties Inc. Western District. Archuleta, Delta, Dolores, Garfield, Gunnison, Hinsdale, La Plata, Mesa, Moffat, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, Rio Blanco, Routt, San Juan and San Miguel counties unanimously approved the letter and are all sending it to the governor. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe signed the letter as well, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe is likely to approve it this week.
Polis signed an executive order in February 2022 committing the state to connecting 99% of Colorado households to broadband by 2027.
“We’re all trying to work toward accomplishing the governor’s goal, as well as providing high-speed, reliable internet to our businesses and houses,” Salka said.
The letter calls the deal with Arcadian a “market failure,” and says that county governments are engaged in “unprecedented intergovernmental cooperation to improve broadband throughout Western Colorado.”
Despite conversations between regional governments and CDOT, the letter laments that little progress has been made with respect to accessing the fiber optic cable.
Salka stressed that the county would be willing to contribute funds toward the project and insists that the county should be able to tie into infrastructure that runs through the region. La Plata County earmarked $2.5 million of the funds it received from the American Rescue Plan Act for broadband development.
“What we’re trying to protect is future projects moving forward and also asking for a change in this agreement,” he said.