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Troubled Internet project gets federal OK to resume

Eagle-Net’s broadband expansion will miss Aug. deadline

A statewide broadband project funded with $100 million in federal stimulus money has been given the go ahead to resume work after its grant was suspended for several months because of environmental-compliance issues.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Tuesday informed Colorado’s Eagle-Net Alliance that it had adequately addressed the environmental concerns and lifted its suspension on the project’s grant award.

But Eagle-Net’s newest work plan makes clear the project will not be finished by its original August deadline. The organization will need an additional year and as much as $15 million in private financing to finish its network, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Eagle-Net confirmed it will request an extension of its grant funding to 2014.

Eagle-Net plans to focus work this summer on 29 school districts on the Western Slope, including Dolores, Montezuma-Cortez, Mancos and Silverton. It expects to connect the majority of these rural districts by the end of 2013 which will bring the network’s total count of educational institutions to about 100.

A fiber connection to Silverton School District will not be finished until 2014, according to an Eagle-Net news release.

Government leaders in Southwest Colorado have expressed mounting frustrations with Eagle-Net’s work. For months, local government leaders have said they doubted Eagle-Net would make good on its promise to connect “last-mile” towns like Pagosa Springs and Silverton. Federal legislators and rural communities across the state also have questioned Eagle-Net’s progress and were skeptical of the project’s initial build out into areas of the Front Range that already had broadband Internet.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, was one of those concerned about overbuilding in certain areas while underserved areas on the Western Slope appear to be last on Eagle-Net’s list of priorities, Tipton spokesman Josh Green said in an email.

At a meeting last month, the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments attempted to take matters into its own hands with a request made to federal legislators to give the council control over the federal funding and infrastructure designated for Eagle-Net’s work in the region so it could finish the job.

While the NTIA’s announcement is good news, there are questions that still need to be answered about how and when Eagle-Net will complete its work here, said Rick Smith, Bayfield’s mayor and manager of another regional broadband Internet project, the Southwest Colorado Access Network, for the council of governments.

With federal funding expected to run out before Eagle-Net finishes its work, the entity will need to pursue partnerships with local Internet providers to stretch the private dollars it will need to solicit.

Eagle-Net already has established such a partnership with Durango’s Brainstorm Internet, and the arrangement has worked to the benefit of both players, said Russ Elliott, Brainstorm’s president.

The NTIA has promised to vigorously oversee Eagle-Net’s future work to protect taxpayers’ investment, NTIA Associate Administrator Anthony Wilhelm said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. ecowan@durangoherald.com

Dec 18, 2015
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