Cortez has received the results of a residential broadband survey, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions regarding how the city will move forward.
Telecom specialists at CCG Consulting, of North Carolina, conducted a survey in October of 360 random Cortez households and called landlines and cellphones. According to CCG Consulting, the survey is 95 percent accurate, plus or minus 4.91 percent.
Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, said one response stood out in the 17-question survey.
Four out of five Cortez surveyed households, or 80 percent, responded that they were unhappy with their internet speeds, according to the survey. Dawson said this is “an incredibly large percentage,” and he rarely sees more than one-third of respondents say they are unhappy with internet speeds. He said that high level of dissatisfaction means there is room for an alternative, like municipal fiber.
“Our company has been doing these surveys for almost 20 years, and I have to tell you this is one of the most interesting set of results we’ve ever seen,” Dawson told City Council members over the phone at a workshop on Tuesday.
Internet penetration in Cortez is higher than the national average. More than 93 percent of homes surveyed have a landline internet connection, compared with 84 percent nationally. Only one respondent claimed to have no home internet connection, including smartphones.
Out of those internet users, 47 percent of households use CenturyLink DSL and 40 percent use TDS cable internet. In the survey report, Dawson wrote that he hasn’t seen a city in years where more residents use DSL than cable.
Cortez also has a higher rate of traditional cable TV connections, at 94 percent, than the national average of 69 percent. Of those Cortez cable watchers, 70 percent use satellite, compared with 24 percent who use TDS cable. Just 1 percent of respondents claim to be wireless, meaning they watch television on Netflix or Hulu, compared with a nationwide average between 10 and 15 percent.
Measuring support for fiber, however, was a main goal of the survey. Seventy percent of households said they support a citywide fiber network, and 22 percent indicated they might support fiber if they had more information. Just 7 percent of respondents said they do not support fiber.
Among those who support fiber, 91 percent hoped a new network would bring lower prices; 62 percent hoped it would bring competition and choice; 37 percent hoped it would bring faster speeds; and 23 hoped it would bring better customer service.
The survey ended with a pair of questions regarding the possibility of a sales tax increase to pay for the installation of the fiber network.
Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would support a temporary sales tax, and 18 percent said they would support a tax if it meant lower prices and better service. Eighteen percent said they do not support the tax. A majority of respondents said a 1 cent sales tax for five years is preferable to a smaller tax over a longer term.
“I don’t really know how to interpret political questions — you’ll have to interpret it yourself — but that seems really low,” Dawson said of the 18 percent who do not support a tax. “That’s certainly looks like far more than enough support to pass a referendum.”
The possibility of a sales tax is just one big question facing City Council. At Tuesday’s workshop, council members gave General Services Director Rick Smith the go-ahead to release a request for proposals seeking qualified companies to oversee the city’s fiber program. But the role of that company remains unclear.
The third-party company could finance, design, construct and operate the fiber program or any combination of those duties. Smith said Wednesday that he plans on releasing the request for proposals before the end of the year. Then, early next year, City Council would review the applications, evaluate the companies, clarify the details and vote to select a company.
Smith said City Council could decide how much ownership the city would maintain over the actual fiber infrastructure, decide if nonprofits, schools and low-income families should receive discounts and whether to pursue a sales tax.
City Attorney Mike Green said at the workshop that City Council needs to start thinking about the implications of involving a third party and reducing city ownership in the infrastructure on rates.
“When you start talking control over pricing, I’ve got to be right up front, I’m not sure right now how we do it because when you don’t own something, you’ve got no control over it,” Green said.
The broadband survey is the latest step in a long-running process to implement fiber.
The city for several years has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to begin installing fiber optic internet cable.
Cortez Finance Director Kathi Moss told The Journal in October that the city this year has spent $500,000 on fiber capital expenses, $500,000 in operating expenses and has received $290,000 in revenue from connections at the hospital, local schools, the county building and several businesses.
In May, the city released the results of a feasibility study designed to determine whether the city could deliver high-speed internet to all Cortez residents without losing taxpayer money.
Smith said the feasibility plan showed the possibility of creating a sales tax to fund the network and the newly released broadband survey shows residents support a sales tax.
Because of the nature of election cycles, Cortez would have to wait until 2020 to take the sales tax question to voters. After that, Smith said it would take two years to finish building the network before services can be deployed.
But there’s always a chance that voters would shoot the sales tax down. Smith said hiring a third-party company could possibly help reduce the time needed to get fiber up and running and could prevent the need for a sales tax increase. But, again, it’s all still up in the air.
“I think we’re trying to leave those options open,” Smith said. “We’re trying to give the community an alternative, if we can, to a sales tax increase but still give the needed services.”
City Councilman Orly Lucero said Tuesday that he is not in favor of moving forward with fiber or with a sales tax, while Councilwoman Jill Carlson said fiber is important for economic development.
Smith said Wednesday that he believes that everyone in Cortez should have the appropriate amount of bandwidth at an affordable price. He said it would allow people to work from home and reliably telecommute anywhere in the world.
“That really is the goal,” Smith said. “We believe because we choose to live here, in the rural areas, does not mean we shouldn’t have services in today’s world on par with the urban areas.”