Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser visited Cortez this week to show support for a regional plan to expand broadband internet in Southwest Colorado.
Region 9 Economic Development District is leading a collaborative effort between counties and cities to build out the critical “middle mile” of fiber-optic line needed to connect more homes, schools and businesses to high-speed internet.
The federal government’s Infrastructure Act has earmarked $1 billion to subsidize middle mile broadband infrastructure in Colorado’s rural areas, officials said, which would create the economic incentive for the private market to offer the high-speed service.
In cooperation with the five counties and 10 municipalities, Region 9 has developed a plan for the project, expected to cost $95 million. The project was discussed during a joint meeting Monday with Weiser, Region 9 and local government officials at the Cortez Chamber of Commerce.
Region 9 has applied for $60 million in federal Infrastructure Act funding that would be distributed through the Colorado Broadband Office. Grant awards will be announced in March.
Contracts would be advertised, then awarded to companies to install the fiber optic lines, with a total build-out of three to five years. Counties and cities would contribute toward a $35 million match.
The areas targeted for improved service include Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties.
Ten years ago, the Eagle-Net project, which was supported by federal funding, failed to expand broadband in Southwest Colorado because of a lack of oversight and accountability, Weiser said.
He said the current regional focus, rather than the previous city-by-city approach, and the commitment to stricter contracts create a recipe for success.
“Region 9 has done impressive work and has laid the groundwork,” Weiser said. “The community is in the driver’s seat. We are at a critical moment for broadband in Southwest Colorado, and we want to make sure it gets done right.”
He has hired a deputy attorney to help him monitor broadband companies that utilize federal and state subsidies to ensure compliance with contracts and the Consumer Protection Act.
“If they take the money to provide broadband, there will be expectations in the contract and we will enforce the contract. There will be oversight so people do what they say they are going to do. It takes vigilance. We need your involvement and input on who we can trust,” Weiser said.
An important step in the project is developing an accurate map that shows where broadband is lacking in the five-county area. The project will dovetail with separate federal efforts to fund expanded broadband on the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes.
The local map determining middle-mile infrastructure will be based on ground truthing and input from residents, not from internet companies, officials said. The regional map will be cross-referenced with Federal Communications Commission maps showing broadband service areas.
Accurate mapping is critical to assure Colorado receives all available federal funding for all broadband projects.
Weiser said he plans to meet with CDOT in response to concerns about the regulatory hurdles to install fiber-optic lines in highway rights of way. In an email, CDOT said a step-by-step process is available online. In response to an order by Gov. Jared Polis in August, the agency published a website that identifies the process of accessing state-owned fiber.
A second pot of federal broadband funding will be available to install the “last mile” of fiber-optic lines in rural areas. The final piece makes it affordable for companies to connect with residences, schools and businesses.
“The whole five-county area will benefit from this project,” said Shak Powers, Region 9 regional project manager. “The middle mile and last mile infrastructure gives internet providers something to attach to.”
In rural areas with a smaller customer base, internet companies need reasonable access to fiber-optic infrastructure to provide broadband service at an affordable rate, said Jim McClain, IT manager for Montezuma County.
It is not cost-effective for a company to install hundreds of miles of fiber optic lines, he said, so government subsidies help.
Improved access to reliable broadband benefits education, health care and businesses, Powers said, and the expanded system will add redundancies if a line goes out.
“Broadband is key to attracting new businesses and for the increase we’re seeing in remote workers who want to work from Southwest Colorado and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle,” Powers said.
A few years back, the fiber-optic line servicing Cortez was cut, which knocked out emergency service communications and shut down credit card machines at businesses. The issue has happened elsewhere in the region, including in Silverton.
The public is encouraged to help inform planners on the broadband accessibility. A survey is available at gis.colorado.gov/speedtest/.
A No Broadband Service Report can be filled out by scanning a QR Code or completing a form at https://bit.ly/3SPN3rR.