After months of preparation and planning, Colorado Central Telecom’s extension of broadband connectivity through the Chalk Creek Canyon corridor to St. Elmo is facing a significant setback. Planned as a major effort to expand Chaffee County broadband coverage, the two-year Colorado Broadband Fund grant project ran into a problem it couldn’t easily surmount: right-of-way access.
“It’s a huge disappointment that this hurdle came up. The only consolation is we’ve learned we are not the only company to find ourselves in this position,” said CCT Marketing Director Maisie Ramsey. “Because of the power easement issues through the canyon, we learned we can’t just put in a fiber line on existing infrastructure and assume that is legally allowed.”
Early on, Colorado Central Telecom worked with Sangre de Cristo Electric Association to scope the $435,000 project ($326,000 in grants plus more than $108,000 in matching funds) to ride existing utility poles. The goal was to provide broadband and wireless cell phone coverage for Chalk Creek Canyon, a popular area for tourists and residents but with little communications access.
Hopes and energy were initially high. Project Manager Shannon Harness spent seven days in early May walking the entire length of the rugged canyon, charting the route to add fiber for wireless access to existing electric poles. Just as the work crews were about to begin the physical installation, bad news arrived from Sangre de Cristo.
“We learned we would have to get agreements with every single property owner along the entire stretch of the canyon (in order) to use the poles to provide broadband coverage in Chalk Creek Canyon,” said Ramsey. “That’s 58 owners, many of them trusts where the owners’ names aren’t known. It would take the entire two years allowed for the grant funding just to try to find them and work out individual agreements.”
Ramsey is referring to an approval process called perfection of easements. “This means that while Sangre de Cristo has the right to provide services on their poles, apparently they can’t legally offer to run just anything else along their easement.”
The broadband grant has a two-year deadline for completing the infrastructure. “It was already a huge undertaking, but with the easement hurdle, even a handful of people who say ‘no’ can stop everything,” said Ramsey. “So we had to move to dissolve the grant, and I needed to notify the state. We’re trying to look at other options. We’re getting costs to do trench fiber up the road, for instance. But with the kind of flooding that canyon can get …” Her voice trailed off.
CCT attended the industry’s Mountain Connect Conference this summer and learned about other companies facing similar issues. The area around Telluride, for example, is also dealing with broadband access issues, and Ramsey hopes solutions will emerge.
CCT filed the broadband fund application in the fall of 2017. “We had only 10 days or so to get the application in, so there wasn’t much time then to do in-depth legal work ahead of time,” said Ramsey. “We’ve never run into these easement problems before; in Buena Vista our fiber runs in the town right-of-way. I don’t blame Sangre de Cristo Electric Association – we just didn’t anticipate something like this and now we appreciate the amount of effort it will take to get the easements sorted out. It’s a daunting process. So we can’t get it done in two years.”
Broadband has been called the economic equalizer for the 21st century, comparable to the impact the 1930s rural electrification program made on the 20th century. Century Link, which receives substantial subsidies to extend broadband to rural communities, has been unable to resolve the access problem in rural Chaffee County or provide communications redundancy to protect from outages.
The broadband project would have served 257 households as well as the St. Elmo communications tower for Chaffee County Office of Emergency Services, U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and several recreational businesses, plus provide free public Wi-Fi access in downtown St. Elmo. Currently, CCT’s network extends only as far as Deer Valley Ranch, with no direct line of sight beyond that point from its existing towers at Frontier Ranch and Princeton low towers.
CCT says it is not giving up. “This is a significant setback, and it has put things on hold for the time being,” said Ramsey. “It’s disappointing because this is our mission – to reach communities that are unserved and underserved. We want to find a solution because this is the type of project we want to be working on. It’s why we’re here.”