Plans to bring faster Internet to Silverton are decades old, but residents are hopeful a long-anticipated fiber project can be finished this fall.
Crews working for CenturyLink are laying fiber lines this month, said Peter Beaudette, area operations manager for the company.
“We are aggressively working in a number of locations to beat the weather,” he said.
Last October, San Juan County residents heard the same message from Eagle-net and Affiniti, two groups tasked with bringing Internet to rural Colorado school districts.
But the residents of the only county in Colorado without a fiber connection have spent almost a year struggling with a microwave-link connection.
“It is a 50-year-old technology that is absolutely inadequate,” said Pete McKay, a San Juan County Commissioner.
On busy days, credit-card transactions are slow, it can be impossible to stream video and cellphone service breaks down, said Kim White, superintendent of Silverton School.
“It impacts everybody,” she said.
This year, the school has faced challenges with the new computer-based state tests, she said.
“It was painful. We were able to complete the tests, but they were incredibly slow. We would get booted off. Answers wouldn’t be saved,” she said.
To get the project done, EAGLE-Net signed an agreement with CenturyLink.
CenturyLink had fiber line from Durango to Cascade, while EAGLE-Net had already built line from Cascade to Silverton through partnership with other entities, said Anthony Edwards, a Silverton resident who has been working on this project since 1999.
Bringing the lines over the mountains proved too expensive for any private company over the years and required EAGLE-Net to pay for helicopter crews to string the lines on the telephone polls.
Workmen had to hang from the end of a cable below the helicopter to work on the fiber, White said.
“It was really an incredible feat,” she said.
EAGLE-Net has also installed infrastructure on the lower half of the route, and it had less than 10 miles of fiber to install in order to have a complete infrastructure independent of CenturyLink. But the company was unable to finish the project, McKay said.
EAGLE-Net, an intergovernmental entity, has faced many problems outside Silverton. After the organization was created in 2011, it won a $100 million federal grant to build fiber networks to schools. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration suspended the grant because of mismanagement in 2012. After the suspension was lifted, EAGLE-Net selected Affiniti to manage its day-to-day operations.
This raised questions, because Affiniti was a new iteration of another company accused of bid-rigging and financial struggles, the Denver Post reported.
In July, Affiniti ended its relationship with EAGLE-Net and filed a lawsuit against the organization for breaking the terms of the contract, among many other things.
Neither company responded to requests for comment for this story.
Silverton residents who have been working on the project declined to comment on these problems directly. But White said she was aware of them.
“It’s been frustrating, and it’s been a hard road. But we have been focused on this ideal of bringing (fiber) into the school and bringing it into the community. All the clutter that’s come into this is just details,” she said.
Silverton was promised Internet in 2000 when Colorado set out to connect every county seat. Qwest won the $37 million contract to build the project and reached every county but Silverton.
Instead, the company installed the microwave link and told the community it would be a temporary solution, Edwards said.
The irony that CenturyLink, formerly Qwest, is now a key partner in bringing in fiber after the government paid for infrastructure, is not lost on Silverton residents.
“This has been a long roller coaster of a ride. It’s reminiscent of the Wild West in the Industrial Age,” Edwards said.
Outside companies should have the ability to use bandwidth in the fiber to provide service to Silverton and compete with CenturyLink, he said. But residents do not know how much bandwidth will be available, Edwards said.
Having a competitive Internet market could help keep prices in control, White said.
“Absolutely, I would love to see it be open access and be able to have regional providers,” she said.
Despite the uncertainty about the ability for new Internet providers to come to town and the deadlines for completion other contractors have missed, all three community members are optimistic.
“Right now, we’re just focusing on it happening in the weeks ahead,” Edwards said.
This story has been updated to reflect the fact CenturyLink is not the only Internet provider in Silverton.