A decade ago, computer users were just beginning to leave the world of dialup – with its beeps, chirps and phone line monopolizing – behind for faster Internet connections such as DSL.
The goalposts have since shifted. Instantly loaded Web pages and streaming video are now expected. In 2000, 8 million Americans were hooked up to broadband from home. Now, that number is about 200 million, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
The demand goes beyond residences. Medical records are going electronic and need to be transferred quickly between clinics. Educators augment curriculum with virtual field trips and interactive simulations. And businesses rely on real-time video conferences to network with colleagues and clients around the world.
High-speed technologies, such as fiber optics, have historically been slower to arrive to Colorado’s Western Slope compared to the Front Range. Area experts attribute the delay to rugged geography and a low-density population.
Today, perhaps the word that best epitomizes Internet quality in La Plata County: inconsistent.
“It’s a loaded question,” said Russ Elliot, president of Brainstorm Internet, when asked how local speed offerings measure up. “(Service) varies based on (customer) location. It depends on accessibility of existing infrastructure and affordability of new infrastructure. We deal with dial-up connections up to multi-gigabit fiber connections, and everything in between.”
The more dispersed a population, the harder it is to achieve economies of scale, providers say. The cost per customer incurred by local operations such as Brainstorm and Cedar Networks is more expensive in La Plata County than, for example, Denver or Grand Junction. It becomes a question of profitability.
“The challenge is making a return on your investment,” said Vijay Bastawade, co-owner of Cedar Networks. “If someone were to run aerial fiber cable from Durango to (subdivision) Durango West II, for example, it costs $5 to $7 per foot. If you do the math, you’re looking at a $350,000 to $400,000 investment, and it’s impossible to make that back.”
CenturyLink, which acquired Qwest in 2011, receives subsidies – paid for by fees tacked on to phone and broadband bills – to expand services into sparse areas, but coverage can still be patchy.
“As you get outside the boundaries of Durango’s main business districts, all bets are off,” said Jeff Gavlinski, who is chairman of the Local Technology Planning Team.
One of Gavlinski’s top priorities is creating a more accurate broadband map of the county. Advertised speeds don’t always match up with reality, he said. The team is aiming to finish mapping in six months – based on comparing submitted ISP data with consumer feedback – and then prod Colorado to issue a revised map.
The aggregate amount of bandwidth available in Colorado is on the rise, in part because of publicly funded projects now under way.
The largest, Eagle-Net Alliance, is statewide in scope. In 2009, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act – or stimulus package – set aside $7.4 billion for broadband expansion. Eagle-Net managed to claim $101 million (with $30 million in matching contributions), the fifth largest haul by any one state.
The mission is to build new, or activate currently idle, “middle mile” infrastructure, meaning the long distances between towns. In most cases, bundles of thin, hair-like strands of glass fiber cable are either buried inside conduits underground or affixed to telephone poles. Where terrain is impassible, radio towers transmit microwave signals. In all, Eagle-Net executives say the network will consist of about 4,600 infrastructure miles by August 2013, although delays in southern Colorado have caused some to question the timetable.
Eagle-Net hopes to link all 178 Colorado school districts, and other public buildings, into a central “peering ring” that passes through seven cities, including Durango. The ring is now active and crews are turning their attention to tributaries branching out from the core. Most construction goes on hiatus during the winter, so work will resume once the ground thaws.
Closer to home, a second project – the Southwest Colorado Access Network – is moving beyond the planning and permitting stages and is starting to break ground. Two central hubs, Durango and Cortez, will be linked by a 10-gigabit backbone, from which smaller offshoots will extend to “anchor institutions” such as municipal and county offices, schools, libraries, health clinics, law-enforcement buildings and fire stations, said Bayfield Mayor Rick Smith, who has worked closely with the project.
Funding came from a $3 million Department of Local Affairs grant (with $1 million matching).
Cost savings is a main objective, said Ed Morlan, executive director of Region 9 Economic Development District.
“Right now, each of those entities has a separate phone provider, a separate Internet provider. If you aggregate demand, they group together instead of buying independently,” Morlan said. “(SCAN) is made possible because they’re all connected by fiber or wireless. It creates a single point of aggregation, so instead of buying 10 megabits here and there, we’ll buy 100 megabits together.”
SCAN’s purview is “last mile”; it is the final link between larger statewide lines and individual buildings. Like Eagle-Net, SCAN cannot sell directly to corporations, small businesses or homes. But the DOLA grant terms mandate that SCAN be open access, meaning any private carrier can purchase or lease excess bandwidth for distribution to customers.
“SCAN and Eagle-Net compliment each other,” said Patrick Swonger, a Silverton Board of Trustees member and regional representative for Eagle-Net. “The middle mile is where the vacuum is. (Eagle-Net) is the highway of broadband in Colorado. SCAN would be the off-ramp.”
Not everybody is taking such a sunny view. Critics, notably Peter Kirchhof of the Colorado Telecommunications Association, have complained that Eagle-Net is duplicating existing lines and is stepping on the turf of smaller providers. The giant pot of taxpayer money upends the competitive playing field, they argue.
Bastawade of Cedar Networks said the bolstered infrastructure is a “net positive for the economy locally because they’re spending money locally. But what have they really done? If those institutions that use a lot of bandwidth are covered ... there is no incentive for somebody like me to invest in the network because you’ve taken away my highest paying clients. So there’s a fine balance.”
Brainstorm’s Elliot, on the other hand, welcomes the windfall of low-cost, open-access fiber cable to tap into. Along with FastTrack, Brainstorm provides Internet service to Durango School District 9-R, and Elliot says he doesn’t feel threatened.
Wired for business
No matter where it comes from, the business community continues to make the case for fast, reliable broadband.
Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, said companies value the flexibility that comes with a distributed employee workforce. This means more remote conferences, training courses and cloud data storage – all things that require bandwidth.
Tech-based firms, in particular, must send and receive large packets of data at a rapid pace.
Take Idea Loop, a software developer with headquarters in Dallas. Founder Chris McCroskey has plans to move operations to Durango but described the Internet situation as “concerning,” because his employees work from home.
“I realize it’s unfair comparing a small town to the fifth biggest metropolitan area in the country. But Durango has all the other ingredients, lifestyle and scenery-wise, to be a technology magnet,” McCroskey said. “As a businessman, it makes sense to relocate somewhere desirable. Happy (software) developers pump out a lot of code.”
Mayor Smith said erratic broadband can send the wrong message to entrepreneurs.
“We’ve lost a handful of businesses who wanted to move out here (to Bayfield) but there was inadequate connectivity,” he said. “A provider told us it didn’t make sense to put in switches without enough bandwidth, and we could not get the gap bridged. The provider did not put the infrastructure in. The business left. Without broadband access, business can’t thrive. To entice business to Bayfield, we must change that.”