|State grant still in limbo; no local tax dollars involved; commissioners see controversy
For most Colorado rural counties, the expansion of broadband capabilities and services has been viewed as a necessity, one that enables rural communities avoid becoming technological ghost towns. For example, at a recent gathering of over 50 public servants, elected officials, business people and nonprofit volunteers convened by the El Pomar Foundation’s Central Peaks Region directors, the expansion of broadband capability was ranked as the number one priority for economic health, viability, and growth in the area.
Central Peaks includes Chaffee, Custer, Fremont and Park counties. Custer County Commissioners (BOCC) however, appear to see the matter as somehow controversial, rather than simply as problematic and solvable. Thus, the BOCC, whose support is needed for grant proposals pending, continue to mull over the expansion of broadband services, even considering tomorrow in their mid-month meeting in Wetmore, whether or not they will schedule a publically announced workshop to review the matter.
Time is of the essence however, as grant proposals do have deadlines. A particular hinge date is March 6, a mere 13 days away. By that date, DOLA (Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs), one of the grantors, reportedly favorably disposed to the Custer County Economic Development Corporation’s $1 million proposal, must know if the BOCC supports the project to be funded. If so, they will be invited to Denver to make a 15 minute presentation to DOLA’s Board of Directors; if not, the project dies, as does any federal grant proposal in the making, and according to some, so does Custer County business development, including ranching capability to access broadband provided data related to soil conditions, climate, and water equivalency projections.
The engagement of the BOCC with the county non-profit Economic Development Corporation is necessary, as the only viable fiscal model for broadband expansion is public and private partnerships (PPP). The PPP model in the rural development of what some call the “fourth utility” has long been recognized nationally, and pursued in Colorado, for example, in Rio Blanco and Pitkin counties. The initially three-tiered broadband delivery in the vast Western Slope Rio Blanco County has been “not overly problematic,” according to Blake Mosley, the county’s Information and Communication Technology director. “A project of this size and complexity of course has difficulties, but overall it has been smooth,” Mosley says, adding that the county has as of January 1 this year also taken on the business and maintenance of the system from Colorado Fiber Community, the systems incubator, leaving just the two partners remaining: the county as both network owner and operator, and the two internet service providers. “We have enjoyed amicable relationships all along the way,” Mosley notes.
Because rural counties like our own have peculiar demographics, challenging topography, and sparse populations in the mix, private companies do not see it profitable to provide the physical infrastructure for broadband delivery to a small customer base. These commercial entities, comfortable in urban settings, hesitate to invest capital to improve rural service because of low return on their investments. However, when public entities like Rio Blanco and Pitkin counties provide that infrastructure—in Custer County’s instance, six additional 100 foot communications towers are projected—the providers enter into PPP contractual arrangements seen as win-win affairs: no tax monies are used, consumers increase, business expands, and population increases accordingly.
Should Custer County stall out however, there is some concern that the consequence would be loss of potential for economic growth, a subsequent inadequate school system, a diminished standard of living, and a continuing shrinking population. With the 2015 Upper Arkansas Area Council of Governments Regional Broadband Strategic Plan in place, Custer County has the unique opportunity to develop available, adequate, affordable and sustainable broadband service. Whether or not the county seizes the opportunity remains to be seen, as March 6 draws near.
– W.A. Ewing