Broadband will soon extend from Chimney Rock to Ignacio as La Plata and Archuleta counties aim to connect Pagosa Springs and Durango with fiber-optic cable.
La Plata County commissioners voted unanimously last week to sign an agreement that will support the development of fiber along Colorado Highway 151. The county will commit $500,000 of COVID-19 relief money to back the $4 million development.
In signing the agreement, La Plata County joins Archuleta County and La Plata Electric Association, which have also agreed to provide $500,000 each toward the project. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is also included in the memorandum of understanding but has yet to sign on.
“This is just a memorandum of understanding to say, ‘We’re willing to put half a million dollars in, we’re all playing well in the sandbox and we want this project to move forward,’” said Commissioner Matt Salka, who has led the county’s push for broadband.
The project is contingent on additional money from the state. Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado is preparing a grant on behalf of La Plata County that would see the Colorado Department of Local Affairs match the $2 million the groups have committed to the project.
Region 10 League for Economic Assistance and Planning is also helping to coordinate the effort.
Fiber lines will run from the junction of U.S. Highway 160 and Highway 151 along the state highway, bringing broadband to Arboles, Allison and Tiffany before reaching Ignacio. The lines will be placed on LPEA’s service poles along the route to expedite their installation, Salka said.
In Archuleta County, a project is underway to extend fiber from the top of Wolf Creek down to Pagosa Springs. The Highway 151 project will connect from Pagosa Springs to Ignacio before plugging into the fiber line the Southern Ute Indian Tribe is placing along Colorado Highway 172.
“We are trying to get ahead of the game here and start installing fiber from Ignacio,” Salka said during the meeting.
La Plata County commissioners have prioritized expanding broadband to the unincorporated parts of the county, and other local governments and state agencies have also been working to expand broadband throughout Southwest Colorado.
The Colorado Department of Transportation aims to extend broadband from Wolf Creek Pass to Durango along Highway 160 using state funding. However, the project is years out.
The appeal of installing fiber along Highway 151 is that project can bring broadband to rural parts of the county within the next two years, Salka said.
“This is much sooner,” he said. “It’s helping multiple groups be able to provide the service that we have been saying is very important in La Plata County.”
The installation of fiber along Highway 151 will also serve to attract internet service providers to La Plata County, which will lead to further investment in the area, Salka said.
With fiber along Highway 151 and eventually Highway 160, La Plata County can then begin to address the parts of the county that have struggled most with internet.
Breen, Kline, Marvel and Redmesa on the western edge of the county struggle with unreliable internet, Salka said.
“We want to keep working our way toward Montezuma County, and Montezuma County is looking into the next phase for them (which) would be Cortez to Mancos,” he said. “... What we’re wanting to do is tie this fiber together so then we can have a lateral fiber to address Highway 140 (La Plata Highway) to help Redmesa, Marvel and Kline.”
In addition to building out fiber infrastructure, La Plata County is also applying for another grant to turn the basement of the Old Main Post Office into a neutral data center to help internet providers deliver high-speed internet throughout the county.
The county’s grant application deadline for the Highway 151 project was May 1. If the county secures the matching funding from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, it will use $500,000 it received from the American Rescue Plan Act to create a new broadband project budget and pay its share of the project.
In March, the commissioners agreed to invest 25%, or about $2.75 million of the $10.9 million the county will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, in broadband.
Salka portrayed the Highway 151 project and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs matching grant as an easy investment with significant return for the county and its partners.
“$2 million to get $4 million is great use of our American Rescue Plan Act broadband dollars to be able to assist on this big project,” he said.
Commissioners Clyde Church and Marsha Porter-Norton both agreed, applauding the effort and the significant impact it will have.
But Salka said it’s just the first step toward much needed broadband development.
“We’ve got to start somewhere and this is really the beginning stages in La Plata County,” he said.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Southern Ute Indian Tribe had agreed to the memorandum of understanding and would contribute $500,000 to the project. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has not yet signed the agreement.