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From left to right: County Commissioner Keith Baker, Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter, Aristata Communications CEO Carlin Walsh, and Chaffee County EDC Executive Director Jake Rishavy have a conversation about upcoming broadband funding opportunities in Colorado. Photo by Carly Winchell.

From 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday, August 21 the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Insights Series presented “Broadband: Navigating a Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity” at the Surf Hotel and Chateau in Buena Vista.

The featured speakers, Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) Executive Director Brandy Reitter, County Commissioner Keith Baker, and Aristata Communications (formerly Colorado Central Telecom) CEO Carlin Walsh, sat down with Chaffee County EDC Executive Director Jake Rishavy to discuss emergent broadband funding dollars and how the public can help maximize Chaffee County’s ability to access this unprecedented amount of federal funding through the state.

Rishavy set the stage for the discussion, highlighting the importance of connectivity in the community. “I don’t think there is a more important topic,” said Rishavy, “If anything it’s maybe housing.” Rishavy acknowledged this might be a surprise to some, but pointed out the importance of connectivity in nearly every aspect of life and business including remote work, remote education, and healthcare.

“For those that have great broadband infrastructure, all things are possible.”

Throughout the discussion, Baker, Reitter, and Walsh emphasized the importance of community members stepping up to help provide accurate data to the FCC’s National Broadband Map. This data is used to determine eligibility for funding, so it is vital that our rural area is represented accurately.

The panel encouraged the public to log on, check their address, and complete a speed test to ensure their actual delivered speeds from their service provider are being accurately represented. Baker plugged an application called TestIT, available for download on most mobile devices, which runs a speed test from the user’s cell phone.

If an address is missing from the map or has inaccurate coverage information, the public can submit a challenge to correct the information right from the broadband map. Walsh confirmed internet service providers are alerted to these challenges and must respond to them.

“As a consumer, do your consumer duty and make sure to check that map,” said Reitter.

“The more we do it, over time in theory at least, the more accurate it will be,” added Baker.

Reitter explained the unique situation created by this funding, noting that in the past federal funding hasn’t gone to the states in any significant amount to support broadband, but this time its different. Out of $42 billion in federal funding, Colorado is receiving $826.5 million from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. “Locals know best where there’s pockets of unserved and underserved,” said Reitter.

When asked about how funds will be distributed, Reitter kept things simple and explained that it all comes down to the data. The percentage of unserved and underserved locations will be a key driving force in this competitive process.

Baker discussed several policy changes that had changed in the past to position the county to take advantage of these new funding opportunities. These changes paved the way for a more data-driven approach to allocating funding for broadband, which is why it is key for community members to ensure the data being collected and used is as accurate as possible.

The governor set a goal of reaching 99 percent connectivity by 2027; the panel collectively acknowledged the ambition of this number.

Walsh described the process of providing that connectivity as “messy and nuanced.” He noted that Chaffee County is about 66 percent connected, but that the final push to get to 99 percent is in the most difficult-to-serve areas.

Reitter said she was confident that the goal of 99 percent connectivity was reachable. She conceded that it was an uncomfortable pace for the government, but it was ambitiously set in the spirit of forcing them to move more quickly.

When asked if the nearly one billion dollars in funding was enough to reach the goal, Reitter responded with a “yes” — and a “no”. While the money is enough to get started, Reitter emphasized the need for continued funds to sustain connectivity which will require the “braiding of a lot of sources to bridge the digital divide.”

Baker also spoke on current projects the county was working on, with a current focus on the Capital Projects Fund (CPF). The county recently accepted a bid from Maverix Broadband to work with the county on last-mile connectivity (the last leg of connection between a service provider and a customer).

Baker described Maverix as a small company with a presence on the Front Range near Kiowa and Red Feather Lakes. Though this company was chosen for this current program, Baker made it clear that more programs will be available in the future. Aristata did not participate in the application process for this specific program.

When speaking about why Aristata didn’t apply for the program, Walsh spoke about the difficulties for a smaller private provider to be able to afford certain projects, even with the funding.

“The private provider has to front 100 percent of a 20 percent match,” explained Walsh. Using Monarch Pass as an example, Walsh said that it would take about $5 million to work with CDOT to get fiber to the top of the pass, which would require about a $1.25 million match to provide fiber access to a small number of residents. Money that would be very difficult to make up with monthly service fees.

“We need to get CDOT, excuse my language, to get their sh*t together,” said Walsh. The panel agreed that CDOT required some coaxing to work more effectively with ISPs to provide connectivity.

Walsh also expressed a need to work with the state, the governor’s office, and CDOT on what constitutes a good partnership with better guidance on what a competitive process looks like. Essentially, companies like Aristata are looking for clarity.

“CDOT really needs to transform their way of thinking about fiber optic cable, about placing fiber optic cable, and about how to use it” agreed Baker.

Calix Revenue Edge Foundation Specialist and Truth Has a Voice Foundation Board Member Tonya Wyles attended the event as Calix’s local representative. As a former employee of local telecommunications company Aristata Communications (formerly Colorado Central Telecom), Wyles is well-known in the local broadband sphere.

Calix is a global telecommunications company specializing in cloud and software platforms, systems, and services that support the delivery of broadband and simplify business for communication providers.

“Calix is happy to empower local broadband service providers to simplify their business, excite their customers, and grow their customer base with our solutions,” said Wyles.

“The Calix solution can help smaller broadband service providers maximize any grant funding they can get,” she added.

Walsh emphasized that local broadband service providers (BSP) such as Aristata, are small fish compared to some of its competitors.

A crowd gathers to attend the EDC Insights talk on Broadband Funding opportunities. Attendees included local business leaders, Aristata Communications Employees, BV Town Trustee Gina Lucrezi, among others. Photo by Carly Winchell.

As many members of the Chaffee community have pointed out, there are still large sections of the county where there is no broadband; some such as a swath of Chalk Creek Canyon are without any broadband access and facing terrain challenges.

Wyles asked Reitter and Baker what the state and county were planning to do to help make the permitting process easier for companies attempting to install infrastructure.

Reitter said these were concerns heard frequently, and that a cultural shift would be needed at CDOT. There is a lot of money available for the last mile, but the middle mile (the infrastructure that precedes and enables last mile connections) is still a big need. Reitter said CDOT could potentially be the hero by investing in needed middle-mile infrastructure work.

Baker assured Wyles that the consensus among county leadership is to “get as much broadband connectivity to as many homes, as many people, and as many businesses as possible.” He mentioned proposals to perfect easements to deploy fiber optic cable more quickly and easily as one method to ease the process.

Baker summed up the conversation quite well before the event broke for a reception and mingling. “It’s an internet broadband world now. We’re all dependent on it, and we have to have it. We need to treat it as a utility, and we all need to work together to make the best case to get the best internet we can.”