Faster and higher capacity broadband service has been an ongoing goal in Southwest Colorado, and has been cited as a requirement for rural economic development.
The Southwest Colorado Regional Council of Governments (SWCCOG) released a plan to achieve that on Jan. 20. Four counties and eight towns are CoG members. Montezuma County is not part of it but Cortez is, according to the CoG web site.
The plan includes cost estimates to build "middle mile" connections between the communities. The total is just over $54 million. Almost $14 million of that would be to link Bayfield with Ignacio, Durango, and Pagosa Springs.
The plan lists grants as the hoped-for way to pay a lot of that.
"The shared goal of members of the SWCCOG is to provide abundant, redundant, and affordable internet service to citizens, businesses, and visitors," the plan summary says. "There are a number of options and strategies for improving broadband services throughout the region. Some of these options may be considered in the short term, and others may best be part of a longer-term plan."
The regional effort starts with fiber connections among "anchor institutions" - courthouses, town halls, and other local government facilities, schools, libraries, fire departments, and health care providers. They are linked to hubs in Durango and Cortez that are the digital link to the outside world. Some links between communities have already happened, but there are gaps, as well as sections that are connected but without redundancy.
The plan recommends partnering with the area electric coops and Colorado Department of Transportation to install middle mile fiber.
It recommends grants to pay 50 to 65 percent of the cost. Entities that provide health care are eligible for Rural Healthcare Grants to connect those facilities, including the middle mile links, the plan says. "Targeting this grant, and building to the medical establishments first would allow for much of the desired routes to be built," it says.
In 2010 the CoG got a $3 million regional grant, with another $1 million from the participating communities, to expand regional broadband and the fiber optic networks within the towns to connect the anchor institutions. Excess fiber capacity within the towns can be leased to private internet service providers (ISPs) that in turn could serve businesses and homes.
But there were still gaps.
In fall 2015, the CoG contracted with broadband consulting firm NEO Connect to do the regional plan. The work included mapping the location and type of existing broadband infrastructure and where there are gaps. The plan includes the cost estimates that total $54 million - almost $2.9 million to fill in 12.6 miles between Bayfield and Durango; almost $1.9 million to fill in 8.11 miles between Bayfield and Ignacio; and almost $9 million to fill in 39.42 miles between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs.
In a Feb. 2 memo to the CoG board of directors, Executive Director Miriam Gillow-Wiles advised, "One of the challenges facing the development of middle mile infrastructure is easement perfection. This occurs when existing broadband infrastructure is used for utility use (such as fiber optic cable on power poles), and there is a desire to allow the existing infrastructure to be used for commercial use."
That requires renegotiating the utility easement with all affected landowners, Gillow-Wiles said. "This can be costly, time consuming, and create obstacles to broadband deployment." It's a state and national issue, not just local, she said.
Along with filling out regional fiber links, the plan includes steps to make the regional network known as SCAN financially sustainable. SCAN stands for Southwest Colorado Access Network.
Better broadband service to businesses and homes is a separate matter, referred to as the "last mile." Local governments including Ignacio and Bayfield have signed an agreement for the COG to negotiate with private ISPs to lease excess (dark) fiber within the towns. The ISPs would have to create the final connections to customers. The dark fiber lease payments from the ISPs go to the CoG, which keeps 75 percent and remits 25 percent to the towns.
The summary and full broadband plan are at www.SWCCOG.org.