TELLURIDE – The San Miguel County Commissioners unanimously agreed this week to submit a question to the November general election ballot that would enable the county to get into the business of providing broadband services.
This should come as good news to residents of Ophir.
According to Ophir resident Brian Morgan, the town has been struggling with abysmal internet service for years. Morgan owns Telluride Bytes, a tech consulting firm, and, in partnership with Brainstorm Internet, has formed and heads the Ophir-born-and-funded Broadband Committee, whose goal is to find a way to solve the internet problem in Ophir and other nearby rural communities.
If voters approve the county’s ballot resolution, the county will have the legal authority to work with local tech firms like Telluride Bytes and Brainstorm Internet. Under Colorado law the county may not “engage or offer to engage in providing” broadband internet services, either on its own, or in cooperation with the private sector, without voter approval According to San Miguel County Attorney Steven Zwick, “should the county’s voters approve the ballot question in November the county is authorized, but not required, to provide the services described in the resolution, with or without private sector participation, but is not authorized to impose any new taxes to pay for the costs associated with such services.”
The Not-So-World-Wide Web
Should the ballot resolution fail, Ophir residents need not despair: Morgan and the Ophir Broadband Committee have also been discussing viable ways to get internet to Ophir and other outlying rural areas without the help of government by funding and doing it themselves.
Morgan explains that the area’s only internet provider, Century Link, does not service Ophir due to poor ‘sight lines’ [a term wireless providers often use because if you can actually see the antenna/radio you have service] into the town, and because Ophir’s density does not make it particularly lucrative for them. That leaves satellite as the only option. In addition to being expensive and slow, Morgan says, satellite packages also require quotas so that if the area’s usage goes over the quota, people have to pay even more.
The limited access to cheap and fast internet has been part of living in Ophir for years. According to Ophir resident Katherine Devlin, “It’s pretty slow, and varies from house to house. You can’t really upload or watch videos. It’s the nature of the place to be in the middle of nowhere, but better internet would be nice since we don’t really have cell service.”
When asked about the internet in Ophir, another resident, Tony Jakob shakes his head and says “what internet?”
Recently, however, the limited internet service has begun to have more far-reaching and negative implications than easy access to entertainment and communication. Morgan notes that “real estate sale-ability has been impacted when potential buyers learn of the lack of bandwidth … and children are required to complete homework assignments online, and this has become an increasing problem, as there are likely more than 60 children residing in Ophir.”
Furthermore, “business owners sometimes have to go so far as renting office space in Telluride and commuting in order to run their businesses, which are dependent upon the web and good internet service.”
On Tuesday, San Miguel County Administrator Lynn Black echoed Morgan’s concern with the effect that lack of internet service has on children’s schoolwork, going on to suggest that a main obstacle in bringing internet to rural communities is the fact that “all the fiber line in the area is controlled by Century Link, and they’re certainly not going to sell it to [the county]. There’s a saying about fiber lines: ‘if you don’t own them, they don’t exist.’”
Morgan contends, similarly, that Century Link’s sole ownership of both the tangible (fiber cable, power-lines) and intangible property (rights) needed to extend the internet’s reach to rural areas in the county is the crux of the problem. Morgan says that when he was finally able to get an estimate of how much it would cost for Ophir to pay Century Link provide internet the answer was “approximately $620,000.”
According to Morgan, “Without government help, it’s too costly.”
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Both Morgan and San Miguel County officials believe that a solution could come from involving more than the town of Ophir in the effort. According to Black, “We need a ballot issue concerning the entire Western Slope in order to bring internet to rural areas.” According to Morgan, “ We are more likely to be able to get the money needed to get internet in Ophir if we extend the reach to other areas, such as the commercial district in Ilium, Ames and Trout Lake.”
Morgan believes that perhaps the most realistic way to bring internet to rural areas is not through local government, but through rural HOAs and power companies.
“We envision a point-to-point wireless connection to the Ophir Loop and then going aerial with fiber cable on the local power-line,” says Morgan. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Assn. power representative Johnathon Hagor is receptive to the idea of a connection that “would ultimately go from the Sunshine sub-station to Silverton.” Ophir Town Attorney Steve Johnson, who is working with Broadband Committee, points out that the town would also need permission from the San Miguel Power Association to use the power-lines.
Morgan further explains that the use of existing power-lines would be beneficial, however painstaking the permission process, because “using existing power-lines will substantially cut down costs.” The alternative: burying miles of fiber cable to Ophir, which, in addition to increased construction cost, is time-c0nsuming.
The San Miguel Commissioners agreed at their meeting this week that Century Link cannot be counted upon for help. Even if the ballot question is approved, the county would still need the use of power-lines and fiber cable. Black suggested that the county’s ballot question provides the option of using a private landowner with fiber cable on his/her land as a starting point, so long as the numbers work. She went on to emphasize the importance of facilitating the county’s provision of infrastructure, should the private sector refuse to help.
County Attorney Steven Zwick speculates that whatever system is set up must be treated as a county-owned utility, as state law does not allow a county to rely on tax revenue for funding. (For a utility, funding must come from fees from private users).
Whether the November ballot measure passes or not, the Ophir Broadband Committee is working to make things happen. “Internet in Ophir could happen as soon as 2017,” Morgan said.