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Where are the fiber optics?

Group: $100M project has yet to reach S.W. Colo.

A group of governments in Southwest Colorado is appealing to the federal government and Colorado’s legislators for help ensuring completion of a tax dollar-funded project to increase broadband access across the state.

The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments has sent two letters to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration requesting the agency do its part to guarantee that Eagle-Net Alliance, a state intergovernmental entity, complies with terms of a $100 million grant awarded in 2010.

The grant, which was funded by the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, directs Eagle-Net to connect more than 170 communities throughout the state with a 1 gigabit fiber-optic or microwave Internet connection.

The council of governments sent a first letter in November outlining concerns about the project’s progress in Southwest Colorado, and when it didn’t receive any response, it sent a second, more-pressing letter earlier this month.

“The (Southwest Colorado Council of Governments) is very concerned that western Colorado, especially the southwest region including Silverton, will continue to receive little if any benefit from the Eagle-Net project,” the letter said. “Given that approximately 70 percent of the grant has been expended and the Colorado rural communities of the Western Slope continue to lack the fiber infrastructure, we feel a change in both the Eagle-Net leadership and project scope are necessary.”

The letter was a last resort after the council of governments tried to communicate with Eagle-Net officials on multiple occasions, said Bayfield Mayor Rick Smith, who manages another regional broadband Internet project, the Southwest Colorado Access Network, for the council of governments.

The $4 million grant-funded Southwest Colorado Access Network project aims to build a regional telecommunications network that will link communities in Southwest Colorado with high-speed broadband service.

The regional network is progressing parallel to Eagle-Net’s work and hopes to hook into the statewide project’s broadband “highway” to provide the connections between communities, Smith said.

Linking into Eagle-Net’s network always was the logical choice because its mission and funding is specifically geared toward building the “middle-mile” connection between communities, Smith said.

The Southwest Colorado project will move forward even if Eagle-Net doesn’t finish its work in Southwest Colorado, but it will have to tap various private providers to help piece together the middle-mile link, he said.

The council of governments has reason to doubt that Eagle-Net will complete the project by August, when the grant term ends.

Earlier this month, the federal government suspended Eagle-Net’s $101 million grant. In a Dec. 6 letter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acquisition and grants office, which administers the grant, notified Eagle-Net of the suspension, saying it had failed to comply with certain consultation and approval requirements.

The administration had specific concerns with the adequacy of the environmental assessment that allowed the project to move forward and with Eagle-Net’s consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State Historic Preservation Office and appropriate Native American tribes. It also cited doubts that Eagle-Net properly secured all required permits from various other federal agencies.

The suspension of the award forced all of Eagle-Net’s work to a halt until it submits the required paperwork and comes back into compliance with the grant. Thus far, it has spent about two-thirds of its grant money and also is two-thirds complete with its work.

Though Eagle-Net has publicized that its “core network” is active, Patrick Swonger, Eagle-Net’s regional community representative, said there remains a major gap in the connection ring between Durango and La Veta Pass near Walsenburg.

But the entity remains optimistic that it will finish connecting all 170 Colorado communities and already has contracts out on much of the work, Swonger said.

Eagle-Net already had planned to pause its construction work during the winter, so the grant suspension won’t make a major dent in its time line, said Cody Wertz, spokesman for Eagle-Net.

As for the connection to Silverton, Eagle-Net always planned for extension of fiber to Silverton to happen in 2013, Silverton Town Administrator Jason Wells said.

Wells is holding out hope that Silverton finally will see a fiber-optic connection next year, though he knows there is reason for skepticism.

“The (council of governments) has been attempting to work with Eagle-Net since it was awarded the grant, but it has been a challenging history as we have attempted to collaborate and coordinate,” he said.

The build to Silverton won’t be cheap or easy, which has made such a connection difficult to make in previous years, he said.

“We’ve gotten rolled on this issue in the past, so everyone is still a little shell-shocked,” Wells said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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