More than 50 local government officials, candidates for office and residents filled the Cortez City Council chambers on Tuesday to discuss the goal of broadband for Montezuma County.
County and municipal governments have been working to bring fast, affordable internet into Southwest Colorado for several years, but funds to install the infrastructure have been elusive.
Tuesday’s discussion was open to the public and livestreamed on the city of Cortez website.
Speakers seemed to agree that rural areas need internet. Three junior students from Montezuma-Cortez High School said they need access for homework, online classes and printing their assignments.
“We’re very fortunate to have the high-speed internet that we do have, because it does help us succeed as students,” Aryelle Wright, 16, said.
But she said many classmates don’t have access outside of school, and face a disadvantage.
Retiree Warren Gaspar said that if not for Dolores-based Zumacom, he and his wife likely wouldn’t stay in Cortez. Other internet providers don’t serve his area, he said, and he needs internet service to operate a home-based business.
Kent Rogers, CEO of Southwest Health System, said internet service allows local doctors to share information with hospitals and gives patients access to long-distance “telemedicine,” which he sees as the future of rural health care.
Employees of the regional assisted living group C&G Health Care Management and Cortez-based Osprey Packs said they couldn’t do their jobs without internet.
“It’s pretty much a requirement for us to keep growing successfully,” said Jason Strickland of Osprey.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet with a speed of at least 25 megabits per second for download and 3 Mbps for upload. But Miriam Gillow-Wiles, a member of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, said it’s rare for those speeds to be available here. And because of the difficulty of installing fiber in the mountains and for small rural populations, she said, investment funds are hard to come by.
Because the city has installed fiber in commercial zones, most businesses in Cortez have broadband access. Dolores and Mancos also have some fiber infrastructure, but people in residential zones or the unincorporated county aren’t always so fortunate, especially in places not served by CenturyLink or another major provider.
City Manager Shane Hale said he believes Montezuma County’s need for broadband will grow more urgent. But as residents questioned city staff during the comment section of Tuesday’s meeting, no clear solution emerged. Connect 4, a group of representatives from Montezuma’s county and municipal governments that formed to work on internet access, hasn’t met publicly since August.
“It felt like we just hit a bit of a brick wall,” Hale said. “I think the stumbling block that we hit was just the finances.”
Hale said it would cost an estimated $40 million to provide fiber to all county residents. Cortez’s entire 2018 budget is $32 million, and Montezuma County’s is $13 million.
Mancos resident Greg Kemp asked whether a model based on not-for-profit cooperatives, like Empire Electric Association, might work to provide infrastructure.
“The co-op model worked pretty well for electricity and even for telephone companies,” Kemp said. “The big companies ... did not have a return on investment and would not bring electricity to rural America. So we’re faced with the same situation.”
Gillow-Wiles said a few electric co-ops in Colorado are looking into providing broadband, and there are federal and state incentives for companies to provide internet, but she added that most incentives are available only to a few large companies like CenturyLink.
Several government leaders said they remain committed to providing fiber. Cortez plans a feasibility study this year to decide whether “fiber to the home” is a realistic goal. County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said he believed the county can use grant money to install fiber and recruit high school students to sell broadband.
Gillow-Wiles said Senate Bill 2 in the state House of Representatives, could free up funding, although Mayor Karen Sheek said the bill would require funding only for speeds well below broadband standards. She urged the audience to support local solutions to broadband, and to vote for more change at the state and federal level.
“You have to make yourself heard,” she told the audience. “I think we have more power than we realize we have.”