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Connect 4 goes back to the drawing board on broadband

Broadband initiative broadens request for partnership
Victor Hernandez, of J&M Cable Construction, helps install fiber cables in Dolores in 2013.

The Connect 4 Broadband Initiative has a new strategy to move forward with a countywide internet project that has been stalled since early 2016.

For more than a year, representatives from the Cortez, Mancos, Dolores and Montezuma County governments have been trying to come up with a way to provide faster, more affordable internet services, but cost has proved to be a significant barrier. In March, county commissioners approved a proposal by Data Safe Services and FastTrack Communications to become the government’s private partner in the broadband initiative, but at an Aug. 10 Connect 4 meeting, they announced they would take a second look at the other four companies that submitted proposals as well.

Staff members from the Montezuma-Cortez School District also attended the meeting, at the request of the Montezuma County commissioners, who hope to get students involved in marketing affordable broadband.

Previous ideas put forward by the Montezuma County and Cortez governments called for taxpayer dollars to pay for some of the fiber infrastructure necessary to provide internet to the region. A question that didn’t make it onto the 2016 November ballot would have asked for a sales tax increase to pay for it. But at the latest meeting, county commissioner Keenan Ertel said he no longer thinks infrastructure should be the county’s responsibility.

“For me, as a governmental entity, to start taking taxpayers’ dollars and start building infrastructure for a private enterprise to come in then and start making their sale, and making their money – I don’t say it’s wrong, but I don’t like that,” he said.

Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek said the problem is that there aren’t enough companies willing to risk an expensive infrastructure investment in a rural area like Montezuma County. She said the initiative’s strategy has to include ways to sell the project to companies and the community.

Several members of Connect 4 discussed a teleconference they had in late July with commissioners from Deschutes County, Oregon, where the small resort town of Sunriver saw success recently in attracting big broadband companies. According to commissioner Larry Don Suckla, the town found evidence that 40 percent of its population was willing to sign up for high-speed internet service. High school students in the area helped market the service by participating in a technology project to show town residents the benefits of high-speed internet.

Suckla and the other commissioners believe a similar approach could help Montezuma County’s broadband project get off the ground.

“The school is the key,” Suckla said. “They are the anchor, and the city and county will do everything we can to help the school district.”

If Connect 4 can prove there’s enough interest in Montezuma County to make a broadband company’s investment worthwhile, he said, more companies will be interested in doing business there. An unscientific survey conducted earlier this year by Empire Electric Association showed more than 80 percent of Montezuma County residents would be interested in faster internet if it was available. Suckla suggested outreach from students could give Connect 4 even more hard data on the region’s internet use, and help make a stronger argument for companies to move there.

In the meantime, all the members of Connect 4 agreed to widen the search for companies willing to partner with local governments, instead of relying on Data Safe and FastTrack as sole broadband providers. City Manager Shane Hale suggested setting up interviews with the companies – including Foresite Wireless, Farmers Telephone, Mammoth Networks and ZumaCom – that submitted broadband proposals in January.

Lori Haukeness, superintendent of the Montezuma-Cortez School District, said faster internet would benefit teachers and students, who rely on digital communication inside and outside the classroom.

“What not all of our high school teachers are doing, but some of them are, is they are videotaping every single lesson ... and then those go online,” she said. “So if students are absent, they can download them.”

She didn’t make a commitment to help with the broadband project, but she and other school district representatives said they would continue to participate in Connect 4’s planning process.

Members of the group decided to re-evaluate the responses they received from their earlier request for proposal on the broadband project, put together a summary of the new information they’ve gathered, and decide on a date to invite the responding companies back for discussions.

Sheek said she was glad the group settled on a plan, at least for the short term.

“We have to decide, at some point along the line, what we’re going to do,” she said. “It may not be perfect, and it may wind up costing a little more than if we’d waited another 15 years, but this has been a year-and-a-half project, and at some point we have to decide and then do something.”

Connect 4 did not schedule a date for the meeting with broadband companies.

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