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3/8/2018 Pitkin, Rio Blanco officials discuss their broadband experiences
While Custer County officials and citizens have been grappling with broadband expansion here, two other Colorado counties, Rio Blanco and Pitkin, have been smoothly going about managing their public/private partnerships (PPPs) in providing adequate and sustainable broadband services to their residents and visitors. The Tribune earlier reported on the PPP underway on Rio Blanco County, where Blake Mosley, the county’s Information and Communications Technology director says of the arrangement, “We have enjoyed amicable relationships all along the way.” Interestingly, according to Pitkin County Management Analyst Kara Silbernagel, their program owes its existence to a forward thinking ranching community which supported a 1980s mill levy increase to enhance telecommunications in the area. These funds continue to make possible the advancements there, says Silbernagel. “In those days it was translator towers, and since 2011 we have been able to use the funds, without increasing the mill levy, for where the technology now has evolved: wireless.” The county funds were also able to match a DOLA (Colorado Department of Local Affairs) grant in 2014 for what she described as the county’s “first robust survey of broadband infrastructure needs, and to understand the systems involved.” Although, similar to Custer County, optic fiber was laid out along their major highway, Route 82, the extension to where it was needed would have cost $14 million, “way too expensive for us,” Silbernagel noted. When looking at the power grid there, and “completing the middle mile” of delivery, “our local government,” she said, “looked at the areas where delivery companies were not willing to go, and decided to reduce the barriers to their entry.” Their next DOLA grant enabled the county to proceed eventually with the PPP they now have in place. “Our commissioners saw the need to reduce those barriers in order to serve the under- and un-served citizens here,” Silbernagel added. The framing of the dynamics there, she commented, is in seeing the county not as a provider of equipment, but as a provider of infrastructure. Using her favorite analogy, Silbernagel commented that “we provide the ‘main road,’ if you will, and our partner in the PPP is a network provider who will manage the road for us; they can now go play on the telecom side streets.” Perhaps most significantly, and in a parallel instance of concern within Custer County, the Pitkin County PPP, while still looking at cost models like revenue sharing, “is sustainable outside of public money.” Additionally, Silbernagel expressed the county’s happy surprise to discover that a concern about “how no one likes seeing towers” has dissipated into “how aligned it all is now in everyday life. The need for connectivity has become the dominant factor…and further, we were surprised at how critical this development was for education, with kids now able to work from home. Our school district is actually looking into providing free wi-fi in homes that might not be able to afford it!” Tele-medicine is also on the horizon there with their expanded broadband availability. The Custer County Board of County Commissioners’ unanimous vote in support of proceeding with a DOLA grant proposal will have broad impact, some of it unknown as of this hour, on the “everyday life” of citizens and visitors in Custer County. That vote in fact, as Silbernagel notes about her county, establishes “a pathway to service for the underserved.” – W.A. Ewing