A Qwest executive was confronted Tuesday outside Silverton Town Hall by about 70 residents upset that a fiber-optic line remains 16 miles out of sight.
Chuck Ward, president of Qwest Colorado, had just told town officials at a meeting that a microwave radio relay system that delivers cell phone and Internet access to the town - population 550 - is more than sufficient.
Outside the meeting, residents held a "support rally." They chanted slogans such as "All we are saying is give us a link," and "Qwest, do the rest!" One woman held a sign that read, "Qwest, you're holding Silverton back." After leaving the meeting, Ward declined to address the crowd.
"We wanted to show him this isn't just a few malcontents," said Silverton Trustee Patrick Swonger. "We've got a whole community who is upset about this.
"The only thing we wanted was the 16 miles of missing fiber-optic line, and he would not agree to give us that, so that limited our discussion from that point forward."
In 2000, Qwest signed a contract with the state government to hook up all county seats to a high-speed fiber-optic network. Today, Silverton remains the only county seat not connected to the fiber-optic backbone. Instead, Qwest fulfilled its obligation by installing a microwave relay system that provides high-speed connectivity for cell phones and computers. Qwest says the alternative was accepted by the state.
During an interview Tuesday in Durango, Ward said he wanted to hear Silverton residents' concerns, but the microwave system provides plenty of bandwidth to the town. Qwest has no intention of installing fiber optics to Silverton, he said.
"We've satisfied our contract with the state," Ward said. "Our customer is not complaining."
The radio link allows Qwest customers to receive 7 megabits per second for $34.95 per month - which is more capacity than many residents have access to, Ward said.
"We've got plenty of capacity going into Silverton," he said. "I guess I get a little frustrated at the implication that we've ignored the town of Silverton."
The microwave link can be better than fiber optics in the steep San Juan Mountains, Ward said, because the microwave towers can be accessed during the winter. If a fiber line is damaged, it could be difficult to access in the heavy snow, he said.
Qwest laid fiber from Durango to Cascade Creek - about 16 miles south of Silverton. It was too expensive to run fiber all the way to Silverton, Ward said.
He said Qwest explored several options for connecting Silverton including: obtaining rights of way from private property owners; laying fiber along U.S. Highway 550, which traverses Coal Bank and Molas passes; and buying a right of way from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
But Jeff Jackson, the railroad's senior vice president, said Qwest has never approached the railroad about using its right of way. The railroad would be interested in such an arrangement, Jackson said, because it would generate extra revenue.
Jackson was unsure why Qwest keeps saying it has approached the railroad when it hasn't. It is possible Qwest is such a large bureaucracy that misinformation has become widely circulated, he said.
"All I can tell you is they've never talked to us," Jackson said. "We'd be happy to sit down and talk to them about what our cost structure would be."
As more companies rely on fiber-optic networks to move data and telephone signals, Silverton officials worry businesses will bypass the town in favor of towns with better infrastructure.
Swonger said Qwest is weaving a patchwork of fiber optics in Southwest Colorado that is going to leave some residents in the dark.
"This is not only a Silverton issue," he said. "It is all through this region, and the state is not addressing infrastructure."
In May, Silverton officials filed a complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission. They withdrew the complaint in June, because they weren't well enough versed with the commission's procedures.
Now the town is holding bake sales and chili cook-offs - including one on Thursday with the theme, "Help put the heat on Qwest" - to raise money to file a new complaint with the PUC.
The town also has conducted "stress tests," in which residents try to overload the microwave radio system by using cell phones and computers at a coordinated time and date.
"We're just not happy being the only county seat in the state without a fiber-optic connection," Swonger said. "We're kind of like the red-headed stepchild of the state."
He added: "It's definitely like a flea on Goliath, but we're biting hard and hanging on."