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During the September 19 Chaffee Board of County Commissioner (BoCC) session, the county commissioners addressed the prospect of attracting significant broadband dollars to the county to complete the great need for the buildout of broadband access. A decision to make this a broader conversation because of multiple requests meant that the BoCC pulled the request from Maverick Communications out of the consent agenda so it could be part of the larger discussion.

Assembling the first section of a new Colorado Central Telecom (now Aristata Communications) tower on Mt. Princeton, following a major winter storm that took down its tower. Courtesy photo.

The topic of finally accomplishing countywide broadband access elicited discussion. Not just because of the need and the dollars involved, but because one of the companies, locally-owned Aristata Communications (whose timing is slightly behind the other, larger companies and hasn’t yet written asking for a letter of support) voiced concerns over the county supporting other non-local broadband resources.

“The objective is to get as many homes and businesses with robust broadband as possible,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “We’re adhering to the process and varying from it would probably be shortsighted in this situation.”

The BoCC has been directly approached about three letters of support for broadband companies that plan to apply for grant funding from the Infrastructure Bill. The three requesting letters of support who have what is known as a “County Invitation to Negotiate”: Maverick, Vereo Broadband, and Charter Communications.

Local communications resource Aristata, plans to partner with Visionary Broadband on its grant application with the support of the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) Advance-Capital Projects Fund. It plans to come to the county asking for a letter of support once its grant proposal is finalized.

“The competition for funds will be fierce – the more projects the county supports, the more likely it is to get programs,” said Colorado Broadband Office Advance-Capital Projects Fund Vice President of Grant Engagement Brian Shepherd. He explained the partnership of Visionary with Aristata and that they aren’t going to be requesting any match funding from Chaffee County. ” Let the state’s project play out. Let the best project win. [Aristata’s] network is built on the premise that all residents of Chaffee County deserve broadband access.”

At least one of the broadband applicants — Vereo —  has requested some level of match funds from the county as part of the grant application.

“We believe providing support does not include financial support – it would slant it,” continued Shepherd. “We aren’t asking for funds – just a letter of support. We will cover the match – as it should be. We will submit a request for a formal request of letter of support. Their network is built on the premise that all residents of Chaffee County deserve broadband access.”

“It’s the prudent move for the county to take all these applications and let the experts figure it out,” said Charter Communications Senior Manager of Government Affairs John Lee.  “In other states, multiple applications are covering an area, and they mix and match to get the best coverage possible. Our project would cover a substantial number, but supporting the others will get you more coverage.”

“Any company coming to you for support has put in a substantial amount of time on this,” he continued. “$162 million is going to go like that. Our governor’s executive order mandates CDOT (the Colorado Department of Transportation] to come up with a proposal to get this set in an equitable way to access that CDOT Right of Way (ROW).”

Carlin Walsh, CEO of Aristata expressed concern, saying ” I am properly disappointed that this has … created inequalities, our project is with Visionary Broadband and it avoids overbilling Aristata’s existing infrastructure. Our project is pragmatic and visionary … commissioners should table the vote today until the CPO process has played out. We’re not asking for financial support, just asking for a letter of support in hand for when we do approach the state. Any pressure on CDOT to get their ROW access would be appreciated.”

Asked by Commissioner Greg Felt what he was disappointed about, Walsh responded, “I’ve had a lot of conversations with the county and was never made aware that the county is running the invitation to the ITM process. The state has said you can do what you want. If you want a competitive process for letters of support, your local provider has to compete to serve its own territory, and it’s been here for 10 years.”

Commissioner P.T. Wood clarified, “We’re on equal footing with every other participant – I’m sorry you don’t like the way this has gone, there was some general disappointment that we didn’t get an application from the local provider.”

“Generally, I would like to support the parties that did submit applications for support, that would be Mavericks, Charter, Vero, and Visionary – I am not in support of making a financial commitment on any of these projects,” said Felt. “That’s where I come down. It seems to me that that falls within what was submitted to us… I support what Mr. Lee said – at this point, any entity that made it this far, we should provide a letter of support.”

The BoCC agreed that any broadband company coming to them should not be asking the county for match funds (which could top $25o,000). They agreed that if they proceed with including Visionary Communications, that it would be done with the understanding that their application would be partnered with Aristata.

Deputy Administrator Beth Helmke confirmed that the county did a general solicitation of projects. Although the county doesn’t have the budgetary details for Aristata, that would have to be brought forward at a future meeting. “We also did a recognition that this was NOT an exclusive opportunity – there may be different areas of concentration and thus more letters of support for different applicants … the distinction was capabilities.”

The county is working with a rubric. “The county’s assessment was to ensure we didn’t have internal competition in areas that overlap,” added Helmke. “I recommend we revisit this when we’ve got the final details in keeping with the process for the other applicants.”

Shepherd confirmed that once the Aristata-Visionary application in conjunction with the Colorado Broadband Office is submitted, they would have 60 days after that submittal to seek the county’s letter of support request.

The commissioners agreed to support the letters of support that have been requested, noting they will invite Visionary/Aristada to come back, so that the BoCC can consider their letter of support, “once we get a feel for what their actual proposal is.”

“What you’re getting from us today is our willingness to review the proposal,” confirmed Baker to the CBO and Visionary/Aristada.

Each letter of support received its own motion from Commissioner Wood, was seconded by Felt, and passed unanimously, in this order: Maverick, Charter and Vero, with the additional caveat that the county would deny Vereo’s funding request.