In March 2015, leaders of Montezuma County, Cortez, Dolores, Mancos and Towaoc formed the Connect 4 Broadband Initiative to find a way to make fast internet more affordable for county residents. Their first plan, to run fiber cable to all businesses and residences in the region, would have been too expensive to carry out without levying new taxes. Now Connect 4 hopes to lower the price tag and avoid tax increases by asking broadband companies to shoulder some of the cost in a public-private partnership.
Town leaders in Montezuma County have been trying to get faster internet services to residents for years, but 2015 was the first time the local governments joined forces. Connect 4’s initial proposal was for a fiber network that would provide at least 25 megabits of data per second – the federal broadband standard – to every town, with one line stretching to the Utah border.
The first step in their plan was to put two items on the 2016 Montezuma County ballot. One would require the county to opt out of Senate Bill 152, which prevented local governments in Colorado from creating their own broadband networks, and one would levy a 1 percent countywide sales tax to pay for the internet project, which was estimated to cost about $39 million. SB 152 made it onto the ballot and passed in the November election, but county commissioners took the internet plan off the ballot.
Jim McClain, Montezuma County’s director of information technology, said the Connect4 board realized the fiber plan was far too expensive. This year, they plan to try a new approach.
“We decided to go in a different direction, into a public-private partnership, rather than the county trying to absorb the whole project,” he said.
Looking for partnersInstead of installing fiber cables throughout the county, Connect 4 now hopes to save money by using existing cell phone towers to provide wireless internet.
“Wireless technology has really changed a lot over the last five years, and so you can push some really high speeds through wireless,” McClain said. “There are towers scattered about that could be used without a lot of expense right out of the gate, so the biggest expense would be building the wire itself and getting fiber to those towers.”
That part of the project will still be expensive, which is why the county wants to partner with other internet providers. They sent out a request for proposal in early January, asking companies how much they would pay to connect customers to “last mile” internet services, if government entities invest in “middle mile” services. In broadband terminology, “last mile” refers to the part of a telecommunications network that connects the consumer with a service provider, while “middle mile” refers to the infrastructure that connects the provider with the internet at large.
Chelsea Jones, the economic development specialist for Montezuma Community Economic Development Association, represents local businesses on the Connect 4 board. At a MCEDA board meeting on Jan. 10, she said the lack of reliable internet in many parts of the county is hurting the economy.
“From a business standpoint, we’re really at critical mass,” she said. “I have had multiple businesses talk to me about, if we don’t get this fixed so they can get faster internet at their house ... they’re going to leave.”
Right now city governments in Montezuma County have access to high-speed internet through their own fiber infrastructure, but for most people in the county, internet remains expensive and slow. According to the Connect 4 website, the average home in Montezuma County gets only 3 mbps, and some have no internet access at all.
But what comes nextConnect 4 won’t release an estimate of how much the project will cost until it gets responses back from the request for proposal, but they hope to fund it with money from corporate partners, state grants and existing taxpayer dollars. The county would seek to impose a new tax as a last resort, McClain said.
Jones said several companies have expressed interest in the proposal, though she wouldn’t identify them. McClain was less optimistic, saying that only two companies responded to a request for information that went out in November – FastTrack Communications and Farmers Telephone – and he thinks they’ll likely be the only companies that respond to the request for proposal.
The deadline for companies to respond is Feb. 14. After that, the next step for Connect 4 will be to get community feedback. Empire Electric Association Inc. has offered to pay for a public survey about internet usage. Connect 4 conducted a similar survey last year, which is still available on their website, asking whether residents would support a possible sales tax to pay for internet. But the first draft of Empire’s survey, as presented to the Connect 4 board on Jan. 11, removes that question, and simply asks residents whether they have internet access and whether they’re satisfied with its speed and reliability.
The survey should be mailed to Empire customers in March with their electric bills, and Jones, who has been acting as a spokesperson for Connect 4, wants to put it on the website as well.
Meanwhile, Connect 4 isn’t the only group trying to get faster internet for Montezuma County. Cortez City Manager Shane Hale said the city’s own “fiber to the home” project is on hold until the Connect 4 project takes shape.
“We just kind of set our plans aside to work with the county, to see if there is a countywide solution,” he said. “I believe that the city would be better off if all county residents had this resource.”
But the city has a grant for fiber installation from the Department of Local Affairs, and it will expire in 2018, so Hale said they do hope to resume the project sometime this year, in conjunction with Connect 4.