A federally funded study could reveal some of the best ways to use improved internet service to bolster business across Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments the technical assistance to study economic opportunities associated with increased internet services earlier this year, and work is expected to start in the coming weeks, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the council. The council includes governments across Southwest Colorado, including the city of Cortez and the towns of Mancos and Dolores.
The work is meant to prepare the region for better internet service and determine how to maximize its potential to increase economic activity and support businesses, she said.
“We can’t just ‘build it and they will come,’” she said.
Through the technical assistance grant, consultants will provide a road map to improved internet use in six to nine months, she said.
For example, consultants could determine whether the region needs co-working spaces for remote workers who don’t want to work at home all the time, she said. The plan also could determine how better internet services could be used to support entrepreneurs and existing businesses in need of remote workers from outside the region, Gillow-Wiles said.
Economic development steps will be identified across Southwest Colorado and in San Juan County, New Mexico, because the two are inexorably linked. Residents are constantly commuting across the state line for work, health care and other services, she said.
“We are more linked to each other than we are to any other part of our state,” she said.
Both regions also have been hurt by the decline in oil and gas, and it’s hard to replace energy jobs with positions in the service industry or recreational tourism, Gillow-Wiles said.
Improved internet services also could support more remote workers and bring in dollars from outside the community that will then circulate as those employees buy goods, she said.
Remote work also can help supplement the agricultural industry. Sometimes young people want to return home and take over a family farm but can’t because there are no professional opportunities for their spouses, she said. Remote work can help provide those options, she said.
The grant will not identify where or how internet services need to be improved, which can be a hefty investment, Gillow-Wiles said.
It likely would require $50 million to $70 million to bury fiber optic lines along Colorado Highway 184 and U.S. Highways 160, 550 and 491, she said.
However, a new Colorado law passed this spring could make it easier for new internet infrastructure to be put in along existing power lines, she said.
SB19-107 eliminated the need for utility companies to renegotiate easements with landowners to put in broadband infrastructure for commercial purposes along existing lines, she said.
“It takes away negotiation because it was costly and time consuming and unpredictable,” she said.