For Scott Bookman, Executive Director of the Norwood Uncompahgre Medical Center, “Broadband is as important as electricity.” As a geographically-isolated frontier Federally Qualified Health Center, the Medical Center relies on internet service to access daily patient medical records and to communicate with specialists in Montrose and Grand Junction. “Without broadband services our patients and our community will not have access to the highest level of medical care possible,” says Bookman. The Uncompahgre Medical Center is one of many institutions and businesses in this region struggling to participate in the 21st century without high-speed broadband.
Recognizing how the lack of broadband was impacting the economic viability of the region, in 2015 the Telluride Foundation embarked on a regional broadband expansion initiative to light a dormant, pre-existing fiber optic cable that would connect all the communities from Nucla to Telluride with high speed, affordable and reliable Internet. While Internet access is available in our rural region, it is plagued by slow speeds, high prices, and regular service outages. Our small population and challenging geography make broadband infrastructure investment unattractive to internet companies; the return on investment is just too small to make sense. It was up to the community to make broadband a reality, and so the Telluride Foundation, in partnership with San Miguel County and Region 10 Economic District began pursuing opportunities to change the broadband landscape, with the intention of supporting critical community services like our schools, medical centers, emergency services, businesses and libraries.
While the journey from 2015 to present has been arduous, tedious, and rifled with successes and setbacks alike, today, the reality of fiber optic broadband in our region is finally tangible.
Our proposed broadband regional network is a combination of middle mile infrastructure (the highway that connects fiber to main stations where service providers can hook into to serve homes and businesses), network equipment, and direct fiber connections to community institutions. This entire network covers roughly 60 miles and includes both new construction and pre-existing fiber assets.
Six distinct segments comprise the complete network: (1) new underground fiber build from Nucla to Norwood town; (2) fiber that runs throughout the Town of Norwood and to important community locations like the school, medical center, new library, fire/emergency station, and county and town buildings; (3) utilizing a pre-existing fiber optic line from Norwood town to the Sunshine Station at Ilium, outside of Telluride; (4) utilizing a existing fiber optic line that connects from the Sunshine Station to the roundabout at Society Turn; (5) new underground fiber optic line from Society Turn to the Telluride high school; (6) new fiber optic throughout the Town of Telluride that connects to the schools, library, medical center, government buildings, fire station, town park, and other municipal buildings.
Each segment is funded by a combination of public and private entities. Partners including two different federal agencies, Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, the towns of Norwood and Telluride, San Miguel County, the Telluride Foundation, Region 10 Economic District, and local Internet service company Clearnetworx. The total investment in the entire project comes to nearly $5 million.
Nucla to Norwood: Federal funding is in place and as soon as the final Colorado Department of Transportation permits are in place, construction can begin. Estimated start date is July 1, 2018 with a completion date in October. This segment includes underground construction along the highway from Nucla into Norwood and to the Tri-State Substation, which connects with the fiber that connects all the way to Ilium, outside of Telluride. This is a critical segment that is the only means of providing Norwood with high speed broadband service.
Norwood: Construction has already broken ground in the Town of Norwood and includes a creative partnership with the Town of Norwood’s effort to bring lawn and garden (“raw”) water to town residents. By working together, the broadband and raw water infrastructure projects are using the same trenches throughout the town, resulting in cost savings for both. Norwood is currently digging trenches for conduit (underground tubes that carry wires) that will house fiber, as well as the piping for raw water. The new fiber entering Norwood from Nucla will not only supply the entire town, but also feed into a $1.1M grant from the federal eRate program (Internet support for schools and libraries) to provide direct fiber connections to the Norwood school and library.
Norwood to Ilium: The Telluride Foundation has taken the lead in perfecting landowner easements to be able to use the dormant fiber optic cable laid in 2010 by Tri-State Generation and Transmission. The easements allow commercial use of that fiber. Of the 49 landowners, we have 11 perfected, with 28 ready to sign, and the final 10 in process. Discussions with landowners have been positive; however, the landowners want access to have high speed, reliable internet service! With this as our common goal, we are well on the way to success.
Town of Telluride: An example of multiple players working together, the new infrastructure build throughout the Town of Telluride brings together federal eRate funding (same grant as the Norwood school and library) with San Miguel County resources and grants, as well as Town of Telluride resources. Together, new and existing fiber resources will connect homes, businesses, and key institutions and provide a redundant connection, which means that when one line goes down, there is another in place to take over so there is no break in service. In the past, the lack of redundancy has had serious implications, with 911 going dark for 36 hours in 2017, and credit card machines failing during high festival season.
The San Miguel Regional Broadband Expansion Initiative is complex with multiple segments, multiple stakeholders, and multiple funding sources. Its ultimate success is still unknown; many parts and pieces still need to come together. However, the Telluride Foundation has led the collaboration not only in securing funding for most of the network segments, but also in providing a central access point for stakeholders to find common ground and work through issues that will ultimately ensure the success of the network. At last, our efforts over the past three years have come to fruition as construction begins, conduit is installed, and contract discussions with internet service providers are finalized. This is yet one more example of how our communities should and can come together for a cause critical to the future of our region. We collaborate to make more possible.