Residents across the region can look forward to being a bit more plugged-in this year.
New services from several providers, federal grants and a push from local agencies will fill some Internet gaps in Southwest Colorado and mean faster service for some residents.
Those walking in Durango along Main Avenue from Fifth Street to Eighth Street should notice free wireless from SkyWerx by the end of the week. Eventually, the service will be available through 13th Street, said Justin Davis, chief operating officer for the company.
The service will be offered in partnership with the city of Durango, which owns the fiber optics.
Some rural residents with slow Internet also should have more service options by the end of the year, courtesy of CenturyLink, SkyWerx, AlignTec and BrainStorm.
“A lot of people are working on it. ... In certain geographies we’re going to see overlapping solutions,” said Roger Zalneraitis, director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
But competition can encourage faster connections.
For example, a year and a half ago, SkyWerx started providing service to Forest Lakes, one of the largest county subdivisions, and then CenturyLink improved its service, Davis said.
To encourage more Internet service, Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, Colorado Department of Transportation and the alliance are funding a study to identify gaps in the region’s open-access fiber network. Open-access lines can be leased by many companies, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the council of governments.
“Open access is the key,” she said.
Open-access lines are needed between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs and over Wolf Creek Pass between Pagosa and South Fork.
“We have few options for redundant connectivity due to the topography and remoteness of the region,” she said.
For example, additional fiber optic and Internet access is needed between Durango and Cortez, she said.
One of the challenges to laying fiber optics in rural areas is the cost versus the number of potential customers.
A solution is to use a combination of fiber optics and microwave links such as the network SkyWerx built across the region.
For example, the line between Bayfield and Pagosa could have cost the company between $4 to $7 million to lay fiber optics. Instead, the company put in a microwave link for several hundred thousand.
CenturyLink built a line between the two communities in 2003, but did not have enough capacity to lease to other companies until recently, said Mark Soltes, assistant vice president for public policy and government affairs.
SkyWerx has plans to expand its network to areas where population is not as dense near Ignacio and south toward Tiffany and Arboles. But this is dependent on an agreement with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Davis said.
The company also is planning a new tower that will expand service west to Hesperus, Mancos and Cortez by the end of 2016.
These microwave links allow AlignTec, a company that partners with SkyWerx, to offer fixed wireless to residents, said Orion Lukasik, the founder.
While Lukasik would love to see fiber optics developing more quickly, fixed wireless is far less expensive.
It is also more reliable than satellite Internet serving some rural customers, which is susceptible to weather and comes with a data cap. In the last 2½ years, AlignTec’s customer base has expanded by five times, Lukasik said.
Grants are another solution to bring Internet to rural customers.
Since 2013, CenturyLink has invested $6.5 million from the Federal Communications Commission in Colorado, including in many subdivisions around Durango, Soltes said.
In August, CenturyLink accepted $26.5 million from the FCC to focus on improving service to Colorado customers, according to a news release.
In contrast to the regional planning study, the company’s focus is not on fiber-optic lines between towns, but on infrastructure closer to homes.
“The program is designed to push fiber infrastructure as close to the customer as possible to gain the increased speeds,” Soltes said.
The federal government identified more than 4,300 households or business in La Plata County that qualify for this grant funding. The FCC has provided enough money to improve service to some of these locations over the next five years, but not all, Soltes said.