Town of Red Cliff, U.S. Forest Service slugging out broadband deal

Red Cliff constructed its own broadband tower, part of its effort to bring broadband into the town. They've been waiting for word since last October from Pike/San Isabel National Forest managers, and finally getting word Friday that the project could get the green light later this year.
Chris Dillmann| |

RED CLIFF — Silence is not what Red Cliff wanted when the town started trying to bring in broadband internet service, but the town’s mayor said that’s what they’ve received from the U.S. Forest Service until this week.

“This is about an entire sea change for our community,” said Red Cliff Mayor Anuschka Bales.

Fiber optics already there

Fiber optic cable runs past Ski Cooper, between Minturn and Leadville at the top of Tennessee Pass. Red Cliff’s plan calls for fiber optic cable to run up Ski Cooper’s lift system to the top of the mountain, where a dish would beam broadband into Red Cliff and a tower the town built with its own money, along with some grants.

Red Cliff is waiting for the green light from the U.S. Forest Service’s Pike and San Isabel National Forests managers in Leadville and has been since October, Bales said. Ski Cooper is in the San Isabel National Forest, not the White River National Forest, which has its Holy Cross District headquarters in Minturn and Eagle.

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Project began in 2014

The process officially started in 2014, when Red Cliff asked the Forest Service for a special-use permit, said Barb Timock, public affairs officer with the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron & Comanche National Grasslands.

Eventually, Noah Koerper, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s Western Colorado director, sat down with Red Cliff, Ski Cooper, the internet provider, the Forest Service and the Colorado Tramway Safety Board — ski lifts are considered a form of public transportation, so the tramway board got a seat at that table.

“The goal was to try to get everyone speaking the same language,” Koerper said.

Red Cliff took what it learned from that meeting and reworked its application, submitting it in October 2016.

“We took what they said to heart,” Bales said.

The Forest Service said the agency is conducting its internal review and is “hopeful” that they’ll have it “resolved this summer or late fall.”

“Currently, the Leadville district office is moving through their internal processes and reviews to permit this need for the town of Red Cliff,” Timock said.

Timock said they are “making progress.”

“Both the Leadville District Ranger Mary Moore and the town of Red Cliff are working in partnership and hopeful that this issue will be resolved this summer or late fall,” Timock said.

“They have come to understand the necessity and the timing,” Bales said.

The drop-dead date is September. After that, there’s too much snow at Ski Cooper and they’re delayed for another year, Bales said.

Building broadband

Bringing broadband to Red Cliff will not be complicated, simply work, said Eric Hager, vice president for business development for Futurum, a Front Range company hired to do the job. Futurum acquired San Isabel Telecom in late December and now has 15,000 rural Colorado customers from Durango to Grand Junction to Vail, Hager said.

Futurum took over the Red Cliff project from a company that wanted to dig up the ground to run the fiber optic cable to the top of Ski Cooper. The Forest Service frowned upon that idea, and the project languished.

Futurum and Red Cliff came up with the better idea, Bales said, of running fiber optic cable up Ski Cooper above ground, along the cables already on the lift towers.

Trying to make it easy

Futurum will install a microwave dish at the top of Ski Cooper on an existing lift building. From there, the broadband signal will be beamed down into Red Cliff.

Hager figured the above-ground plan would make it easer for the Forest Service to green light the project.

“The idea was to give the Forest Service an easy path,” Hager said.

The Obama administration issued an executive order to streamline rural broadband approvals. The Trump administration has raged against stifling federal regulations, going so far as to order federal agencies to eliminate two old regulations for each new one.

In the meantime, Red Cliff landed a couple of grants and kicked in its own money to build a tower in town. Colorado’s Broadband Deployment Fund kicked in some money, as did Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs.

The microwave equipment at the top of Ski Cooper will cost $125,000, and Futurum will spend another $18,000 for the service equipment, Hager said.

Futurum has already spent $25,000 of its own money, Hager said.

If broadband ever arrives, then Red Cliff customers can buy it at 24 megabits or better for around $70 a month, Hager said.

Fixed Wireless

Broadband can be delivered by wire, satellite or by fixed wireless. Fixed wireless comes off of a tower such as the one Red Cliff built, and the broadband is distributed by the tower to homes or businesses, explained Nathan Walowitz, regional broadband coordinator with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

Satellite speeds are slower, and there’s always a data cap, Walowitz explained. If you exceed the cap, then you pay a lot of money, plus the service providers slow you down.

“Fixed wireless does not have those limitations,” Walowitz said.

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