DENVER – Construction of a broadband network between Durango and Silverton will happen next year, executives of a group that has a federal grant to build the line told legislators Wednesday.
But the corridor through Bayfield and Pagosa Springs will not get a fiber-optic communications line anytime soon.
Legislators finally got a chance to question executives of Eagle-NET Alliance on Wednesday, and while the hearing at the Legislative Audit Committee answered several questions, much remains unknown about Eagle-NET’s future.
Eagle-NET – an alliance of school districts and local governments – received a $100 million federal grant in 2010 to connect schools and other community institutions to a high-speed communications network. The network is separate from the Internet, although schools can use it for Internet access.
Eagle-NET also sells its excess capacity to local Internet companies, who in turn sell high-speed access to households and businesses – a practice that has spurred allegations of unfair competition from telecommunications companies in Eastern Colorado.
The group has come under fire for spending its grant on connections to urban schools that already have access to high-speed networks. Its grant was suspended for five months, it was the subject of a congressional hearing, and state legislators have been pressing its executives to be more open about their operations.
Sometime in October, Eagle-NET plans to announce a contract with a telecommunications company to operate its network. Executives declined to name the company, and they deferred questions about Eagle-NET’s long-term finances until the contract is signed.
Eagle-NET has spent all but $8 million of its $100 million grant, but it has set aside $3.4 million to build the Silverton line.
“We’re trying to plan and engineer that work this year and start construction next spring,” said Mike Ryan, Eagle-NET’s president, in a brief interview after Wednesday’s hearing.
However, Eagle-NET will run out of money before it finishes connections to every school district in the state. It will need revenue from sales of broadband services to build more of the network, including the stretch from Durango east over Wolf Creek Pass into the San Luis Valley. The group got Forest Service approval in May to build the line.
“Right now, that is not currently in the plan,” Ryan said.
Patrick Swonger, Eagle-NET’s coordinator for Southwest Colorado, said in a phone interview that the group will build a fiber-optic line that stretches from Durango to Silverton. Currently, Silverton relies on a microwave transmission for its Internet service, which residents say is inadequate.
The line through Bayfield and Pagosa Springs was in the original plan, but it will not be finished before the grant runs out, and new revenue will be needed, Swonger said.
“We’re still committed to completing our original plan,” he said.
The towns of Creede, Lake City, Naturita and Nucla also were left out of current construction plans, according to a map provided by Eagle-NET.
A connection to Cortez was finished recently, and Swonger expects broadband lines to reach the school in the town of Dolores within a week.
But a local Eagle-NET critic isn’t sure the group will fulfill its promise to Four Corners communities, including Silverton and Pagosa Springs.
Jeff Gavlinski, chairman of the Southwest Colorado Local Technology Planning Committee, said the line over Wolf Creek Pass will be very expensive.
“I’m not sure that can be built in a timely manner. So Archuleta County will be left in the dark, from an Eagle-NET perspective,” Gavlinski said.
Eagle-NET presented lawmakers with several letters of support, including one from a Durango Internet provider.
Russell Elliot, president of Brainstorm Internet, said Eagle-NET’s fiber is allowing his company to reach towns such as Ophir, Ames, Placerville and Norwood.
“Short of Eagle-NET’s efforts, these communities would go without,” Elliott wrote in his letter.
State legislators invited Eagle-NET to return in a few months for a progress report.