In a year when the general election formal ballot is 18 inches long, the addition of one small ballot question is seen by Chaffee County commissioners as critical to Chaffee County’s ability to compete in the global economy. Ballot Question 1B would restore authority to Chaffee County to provide high speed internet, telecommunications and cable television service within the county service area.
The county lost that authority in 2005 when the Colorado General Assembly passed Senate Bill 152, which provided that before a local government can provide Telecom or cable services, it has to call an election to get voter approval to opt out. Large providers are supposed to be providing access, reliable coverage and redundancy in rural areas. That coverage has not materialized; in part because compared to highly-populated metro areas, rural areas cannot make as good a business case for improved communications services.
Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution in early October, framing their decision to refer the question to the voters of whether to restore the county’s authority to provide high speed internet. The ballot question only grants authority; there are no high-speed internet, telecommunication and cable television service projects associated with the ballot question, nor is there any funding mechanism.
“Right now, even if we get a grant to fix our communications, we can’t do that because we have no authority,” said Commissioner Dave Potts. “First, by opting out of 152, we can go ahead and find solutions for the communications we’re lacking.”
The county would be in good company. Some 23 of Colorado’s 64 counties have already opted out of the bill, as well as many municipalities. The town of Buena Vista opted out a few years ago, and Salida just approved a SB 152 opt-out in its Sept. 25 Special Election.
From a practical standpoint, the net result of SB 152 has been to severely limit rural connectivity, which directly impacts the ability of rural areas to compete economically with metro areas. Rural counties don’t have the population to make the business case to large providers, convincing them to offer a better communications backbone. The impact of SB 152 has been to severely limited the county’s ability to address the frequent communications outages which have occurred, (often lasting for days at a time). Without an opt-out of SB 152, the county has few options to resolve the situation in which entire sections of the county lack the most basic high speed internet or telecom services, other than to lodge complaints with providers.
Supporters of 1B say that approval would bring not just the possibility of working out local solutions to the advanced high speed internet and high bandwidth problem, it could include solutions customized for residential and commercial potential subscribers. By necessity, those solutions would likely be created as a combination of new technology, current and future community infrastructure, and existing fiber optic network, working with both public and private sector service providers.
During the public hearing in which commissioners approved the resolution to put the question on the ballot, Commissioner Keith Baker pointed out that local government actions following their rescinding of SB 152 tend to be customized to the specific communications challenges they faced.
“When the town of Buena Vista made a similar move, our problem was (the town) couldn’t access the internet to check valves or fire systems, so the authority was part of developing the network in town,” said Baker. “We made free wireless available in old town. But counties do different things. Park County has used their opt-out to work on middle-mile connections – to get from the neighborhood network up onto the backbone and get down to Denver. We might be able to do something like that here.”
In the case of Buena Vista, local provider Colorado Central Telecom provided the service solution for the wireless available along Main Street.
Ark Valley Voice has not identified a single county resident opposed to the county taking back authority to manage the county’s communication solutions. To a person, people describe themselves as being “fed up” with the lack of coverage, the frequent outages, and with being ignored by the major service providers.