“There are a lot of moving parts on this one…”
The options being explored by the local technology planning team to bolster the valley’s Internet service and lower costs has a lot of moving parts—like landowners, lawmakers and prairie dogs, Gunnison county commissioner Phil Chamberland says. But a couple of the available avenues that could lead to a better-connected future are starting to show promise.
Chamberland says the valley could start to see significantly improved Internet as soon as the end of next summer if the all the links in a chain of transmission towers from Monarch Pass to Gunnison can be brought online.
While the technology planning team is looking for ways to take over the lease on one tower, another tower needs to have electricity before it can be used.
“Really the only stickler there is getting electricity to the tower that would get us [microwave service] into Gunnison,” Chamberland says. “For that we’re waiting on a ruling on the sage grouse.”
Chamberland explained that if U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the Gunnison sage grouse, which is currently being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act, has sufficient numbers that the listing is “not warranted,” the tower could be electrified relatively inexpensively.
Should the species get additional protection, however, Chamberland said, the line would likely need to be buried, making the project far more expensive.
“There are a lot of moving parts on this one,” he said. “Sometime in late summer we should have a microwave link over Monarch, though. From a cost perspective it’s the best option.”
Other options, like a second fiber optic cable running into the valley, would be cost-prohibitive without a major contribution from Big Brother. After the federal government’s effort to improve broadband service in rural areas fizzled out last year, the focus has shifted to a state program that presently collects about $53 million a year from consumers, ostensibly used for providing landline service to underserved parts of the state.
But some of the underserved areas include Pueblo and Parker, which are arguably no longer underserved, and the provider, Qwest, is getting about $50 million for the service.
Chamberland says the language being used by the state’s Public Utilities Commission restricts the money collected for the “high cost” service, which is paid through your phone bill, to voice and “advanced” services.
“What we’re going to try to do is define advanced services so the PUC wouldn’t have to change the language in order to redirect that money toward broadband,” Chamberland says.
Stakeholder meetings about changing the language in the related statutes will start Thursday, January 9.
All the while, fiber optic cables are running from one end of the county to the other along electrical power corridors maintained by the electricity cooperative TriState Generation and Transmission. Chamberland is working on language that could be included in the easements that would allow commercial data to be transmitted along fiber optic lines already in place and being used by TriState.
“We’re in a holding pattern right now,” Chamberland says.