Broadband study spurs Garfield County to seek wireless for remote spots
GARFIELD COUNTY — A broadband study for Garfield and Mesa counties is complete, and Garfield County commissioners are looking at a wireless project as the first step toward improved connectivity.
The two counties contracted with NEO Connect, a Glenwood Springs-based company, to conduct the study, which also included internet speed tests.
The broadband needs analysis included plenty of options for the two counties to pursue, and with a pretty big range of costs. Ultimately the Board of Commissioners found that a lower-cost option with some immediate results would be a project to get wireless Internet service to some unincorporated parts of the county with the slowest Internet speeds.
This project would start at nearly $200,000 and would improve Internet connections for about 7,600 homes, said Diane Kruse, CEO of NEO Connect.
Commissioner Tom Jankovksy emphasized yet again that the county is not interested in becoming an Internet service provider. “But if we can, for $200,000, improve the quality of broadband and Internet for 7,600 homes, we really need to look at that,” he said.
The board will have to approve a budget supplement to make that happen, as Jankovksy said he doesn’t want to wait until 2018 to move on the wireless project. The other two commissioners also seemed on board.
Jankovsky said the county would have to pursue some kind of public-private partnership.
Those homes receiving the new wireless service will still have to put up an initial payment of $300 for equipment and labor and then pay normal monthly service fees.
Kruse suggested that commissioners first come up with a strategy for getting wireless service to areas without service, such as Battlement Mesa, where tests showed speeds at less than three megabits per second — which Kruse called “pitiful.”
Wireless expansion into unincorporated areas would take these speeds up to at least 25 megabits per second, which Kruse said is an acceptable level and the current definition of broadband. Likewise, Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley Campus and Missouri Heights have very limited service, said Kruse.
Garfield County has about 22,000 homes, said Jankovsky, so improving service to 7,600 homes is a significant chunk.
Luckily, the county owns around 30 tower sites that are well-placed for this project.
NEO Connect’s study also included some larger programs for improving connectivity, including what Kruse called “connecting the middle mile,” which is the areas between the communities. The idea is for the county to get fiber to these communities, then letting them deal with how to connect their homes, businesses and institutions. In Garfield County, connecting all the communities with fiber would run nearly $15 million.
But Kruse also recommends the county could utilize a rural health-care grant, which could open up nearly $9 million to the project. The remaining amount should be covered by a collaboration between the counties, Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado Department of Local Affairs. NEO Connect’s study shows similar costs for connecting communities in Mesa County.
But first, fiber would have to be installed in Garfield County, which would have to come from Grand Junction or Denver — an expensive prospect. One of the biggest boosts to that effort, and for connecting communities, would be for the county to partner with CDOT, which is already working on building fiber on key highways for its RoadX program. Many routes between communities in Garfield and Mesa counties are already identified as the highest priority for that project.
Beyond the wireless project, Jankovksy said a working group should be formed to develop a plan for connecting the “middle mile.” And the other two commissioners generally agreed with this approach.
Building out the middle mile will be a long-term, expensive effort, said Kruse. “But grant funding and partnerships can be leveraged to make it happen,” she wrote in her report. She recommended partnering with CDOT, neighboring counties and intergovernmental councils, existing service providers and Xcel Energy to build keys routes in the region.
The study has also identified numerous “key anchor institutions,” such as schools, hospitals and government buildings that aren’t already connected by fiber, which commissioners also identified as a future priority.
Already a couple of Internet providers in the area have expressed interest in a public-private partnership to extend fiber networks and provide gigabit service to many Garfield County communities, according to Kruse. Municipalities may want to negotiate individually such partnerships with these providers, she said.
In terms of area, it’s the county’s smallest conservation deal ever. In terms of location, it’s one of the county’s rarest acquisitions.