Eagle-Net project focus of D.C. probe

Western Slope terrain a tough go for fiber-optic line

WASHINGTON – Congressional lawmakers questioned broadband industry experts during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, at times focusing on a contentious project meant to build an intranet across Colorado.

As part of the project, Eagle-Net Alliance is building a fiber-optic line to Silverton and other rural Colorado towns. But the company’s undertaking – a project that is supposed to build high-speed communications lines to schools and government buildings across the state – has been suspended since early December because of environmental concerns.

The suspension should be lifted in the next four to six weeks, Eagle-Net officials said.

The project is funded by a three-year, nearly $101 million federal grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus bill.

Wednesday’s hearing was the second in two days where Eagle-Net’s practices were questioned. State legislators expressed frustration with the company during a one-hour hearing of the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday.

Similar frustrations were echoed in Washington on Wednesday, although no Eagle-Net officials offered testimony during the hearing.

“We weren’t invited, and we weren’t asked to be there,” said Eagle-Net spokeswoman Gretchen Dirks.

Instead, lawmakers, with U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, and Diana DeGette, D-Denver, leading the charge, grilled Lawrence Strickling, a U.S. Department of Commerce official, about Eagle-Net’s progress.

Strickling works in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is a part of the Department of Commerce.

Strickling often sidestepped direct questions from Gardner and DeGette, including when Gardner asked him if Eagle-Net had overbuilt the Eastern Plains while leaving the Western Slope without broadband.

That depended on the definition of overbuilding, Strickling said, but later added that the Western part of the state is underserved because of economic reasons.

“In order to be able to economically serve the Western part of the state,“ Strickling said, there needs to be enough people to sustain the project.

“There are huge advantages to a statewide approach to this,” he said.

Later, Gardner asked Strickling to grade Eagle-Net’s progress.

“I wouldn’t speculate on a grade,” Strickling said.

Pete Kirchhof, executive vice president of the Colorado Telecommunications Association, also testified.

Eagle-Net has ignored the Western Slope, Kirchhof said, where broadband facilities are desperately needed.

But Eagle-Net officials defended the project, saying the Western Slope’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult to build quickly.

“For them to say nothing’s happened in the West is completely inaccurate,” Dirks said. “It’s a geographically challenged build that takes longer to complete.”

Eagle-Net still needs to build a line from Pueblo to Durango as part of its plan. Web traffic in southern Colorado currently is routed through Albuquerque. The company also plans to build a spur to Silverton.

Stefanie Dazio is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. You can reach her at sdazio@durangoherald.com.

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