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A broadband round table discussion at the end of the Chaffee County Commissioners Sept. 18 regular meeting surfaced commissioners’ concerns over how to educate the public about communications challenges the county faces. Chaffee County is served by CenturyLink, Charter, Verizon and Colorado Central Telecom, but frequent outages by Charter and Verizon often leave large swathes of the county with no service.

The county will have a ballot question in the November general election asking residents if they want to opt out of Senate Bill 152, which prevents the county from developing its own communications solutions. The city of Salida has the same question on its Sept. 25 special election ballot.

“In July 2010 when I was hired, Alltel was bought by AT&T, and my board decided that broadband was our number-one economic development issue,” said Chaffee County Economic Development Director Wendell Pryor. “What emerged was discussion about who was going to win this race; then, it was cable or telephone, formerly the Ma Bells. We’re still in this race. The race was about who was going to be able to deliver the content – was it going to be mobile? Was it cable companies? Wireless or another service provider?”

Pryor said most rural Colorado counties, like Chaffee County, are at a disadvantage regarding broadband because their base of rural residents and businesses is so much smaller than metro areas that the large providers find it difficult to consider them as an economically sound business model. At the same time, residents and businesses relocating here come with expectations of connectivity that are difficult to meet.

“Senate Bill 152 came about in 2005; Glenwood Springs wanted to build a communications ring model to serve their community,” said Pryor. “The goal is to get all this back to the internet, and it’s a capacity issue … it’s gone beyond redundancy to diversity. We need multiple communications paths.”

Pryor said even though both Verizon and Charter promised a response regarding redundancy and diversity a month ago, no answers have been forthcoming. He added that the average household now has more than 20 devices that need to connect to the internet to function, from cars and refrigerators to mobile phones, laptops, notebooks, smart alarm systems and heating systems – basically, everything now goes through the World Wide Web.

“That Senate Bill prevents communities from working on this unless they opt out,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “I agree there is resilience amongst carriers but not within carriers – we get one cable cut, like Spectrum, they go down. Verizon has a modest microwave backup link, so when their cable goes down, they can swing to that, but it gets overwhelmed.”

“ Assuming that both Salida and Chaffee County pass this, then how do we get infrastructure built,” said Baker. “Every day we delay, the metro areas are getting upgrades and new equipment and we’ll get further behind.”

Pryor said the approach is to get in line for funding from the $150 million broadband deployment fund. It was first created to fund telephone infrastructure in rural areas by carrier, but now the need is broadband infrastructure. The fund underwrites but does not cover the entire cost. Park County, which has already opted out of SB-152 and considers a broadband network cheaper than building roads, has invested and asked their subdivisions to help by taxing themselves. Pryor urged commissioners to ask the providers what it takes to make (they systems) work 99% of the time?

The county’s role, say commissioners, should the ballot question pass, is to consider where to deploy resources and to set up public-private partnerships. The county will need to identify tower locations and deployment opportunities. Commissioners agreed there is a need for a communications piece to educate the public on the need and the county’s ballot question.

“People need to realize this is a business decision. This is no different than the streets you drive on, the lights on streets – we’re in this digital era,” said Commissioner Greg Felt.