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Better and cheaper broadband service could be coming to the valley soon

Faster service at 1/20th the cost?

by Mark Reaman

With a goal to “help create abundant, affordable broadband,” a group of local and regional officials feel inexpensive, high-speed broadband could be close to coming to the county.

Gunnison County community development director Russ Forrest and city of Gunnison I.T. director Mike Lee came to the Crested Butte Town Council Monday, November 2 with an update on progress for bringing reliable and better Internet service to the county.

“We are beginning to narrow into a concept that could work using existing infrastructure,” explained Forrest. “With some new fiber we think we could reduce prices significantly within the valley.”

The objective is to add competition to the valley mix by using so-called dark fiber that is part of the current CenturyLink fiber system, along with some new fiber installation. Existing dark fiber will be leased through a company by the name of Mammoth Networks that has the rights to lease the unused fiber in the lines.

Forrest said existing local Internet provider companies located within the valley such as IC Connex and Xtream Internet are interested in the idea. One hurdle was eliminated at last week’s election when Senate Bill 152 was overturned by the local voters. That electoral decision makes it easier for public/private partnerships to provide service to end users.

Lee explained it might be possible to lease fiber originating in Montrose from Mammoth Networks. He said a single band of fiber could bring in 40 gigabytes of additional bandwidth. That translates into a lot more capacity and speed for the county.

“Right now the 40 gigs would go between so-called Carrier-Neutral-Locations (CNL). Those would be anchor institutions like local government buildings or big institutions such as Western State Colorado University. In Crested Butte we are looking at the marshal’s office as a hub,” Lee said. “In Mt. Crested Butte, the location would likely be the Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation district office.”

Lee said anyone could buy the extra broadband.

Responding to councilman Chris Ladoulis, he said Verizon, for example, could purchase some bandwidth to increase mobile data use.

Under a proposal by Region 10, a group of six regional Western Slope counties that collaborate on economic development projects, the goal is to get the price to about 70 cents per megabyte. CenturyLink currently charges about $20 for the same amount, according to Forrest.

“Things are falling into place,” Forrest said. “DOLA [Colorado Department of Local Affairs] is practically banging on the door asking us to apply for grant money to move this forward. We are trying to disrupt the price structure that exists with just the two companies, Century Link and Time Warner. We are trying to increase competition and allow other Internet companies in our valley to compete. So we are trying to reduce prices, increase availability, options and speed.”

Crested Butte town manager Todd Crossett said the move could cost the town of Crested Butte about $25,000 or less for its portion of matching grant funds to pay for the dark fiber strung from Montrose to Gunnison and Gunnison to Crested Butte and throughout town.

“That would be our portion of matching funds for the main bundling for the Region 10 grant, which would be a bargain. This sort of increase would diversify the economy for people looking to live here for the quality of life and work over the Internet,” Crossett said. “They rely on broadband.”

Mt. Crested Butte mayor Dave Clayton said the opportunity for reliable and high-speed Internet is unfolding at a fast clip but details are still being worked out. The idea right now is for entities in the community to join in a statement of support for the concept that could be changed as details become more clear.

“The further you come up valley, the muddier the situation,” said Clayton. “In Mt. Crested Butte the utilities are all buried and that makes it more expensive for us. Fiber goes to the Water and San complex right now but we would want it to go to Town Hall and maybe out to the CBMR shops. The plan gets speed and capacity into the community. Once we have the capacity we can find ways to get it to users. To serve every residence with a fiber connection could be about $2 million. This is a start but we have to really look into the details in the future.”

“A major function of government is to provide services the free market won’t,” said Forrest. “The free market doesn’t seem to want to provide services to little places like this. So we are beginning to increase the infrastructure. It’s like any other utility. This Region 10 effort with DOLA is providing that infrastructure at about half price. They want to provide the middle miles for broadband that no private company is really interested in doing. The private companies would handle the final mile.”

Forrest said there would be some government control over pricing if the so-called middle miles are being funded and controlled by the government. That would ultimately bring down costs to consumers.

“I don’t want to take away the ability of CenturyLink or Time Warner to make a good profit,” said Ladoulis. “I will be happy to pay what I do now for Internet service but I want it to be reliable and faster. Sometimes when government gets involved and starts telling the free market how much money it can make, things don’t always work out. There are unintended consequences.”

“This is still a work in progress. Nothing is settled,” said Forrest.

“This model of CNLs [Carrier-Neutral-Locations] is being used in other places, even in Colorado,” said councilman Shaun Matusewicz. “Steamboat moved to this type of model this summer.”

“This is just a heads-up that things are moving toward a good broadband solution and it could come to the council for a monetary request,” said Crossett.

“We all seem to like the idea and are willing to become financially involved, but there are lots of moving pieces to watch,” said Clayton. “We are helping to force some competition that could increase bandwidth and cut costs.”

Forrest hopes the whole broadband enchilada comes to fruition in 2017.

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