Public, private or both: Eagle County communities mull broadband options
Project THOR, Comcast expansion discussed as communities look to improve internet service
GYPSUM — A cold, hard truth of life in the information age is that a day without internet service is a day that descends into chaos.
Without internet access, chances are you can’t work and the outage can even play havoc with your relaxation. There’s no Netflix if programming can’t be downloaded.
Considering the fact that we routinely tap into the world wide web from a device that fits in our palms, it’s somewhat nebulous to grasp the mass of technological infrastructure required to pull up the Facebook app on a phone. In the simplest terms, that infrastructure is referred to as bandwidth and it runs through phone lines, coaxial cable and fiber optic cable. Think of those options as information roads where users navigate a vast network that spans the globe.
For residents of Eagle County, the area currently has limited bandwidth — information highways, to continue the travel metaphor. As local communities consider how to address the issue, some are banking on a government-backed approach. Others believe encouraging private company investment is a better strategy.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments has proposed one option through a program called Project THOR. This regional effort to improve broadband service in the region would use fiber-optic cable owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation to loop around the northwest part of the state from Clear Creek County on the east to Moffat County on the north. The network would also branch out to areas such as Pitkin County but communities off the interstate corridor will run at slower speeds. Project THOR aims to reach around 230,000 people who live in an area that covers roughly 20% of the state’s land mass.
It will take a substantial amount of money to make Project THOR happen. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs has ponied up a $1 million grant for the effort and NWCOG representatives have been making the rounds to local town boards seeking additional investment. The towns of Vail and Eagle have already opted into the Project THOR effort. The town of Gypsum is opting out.
“We thought it was difficult to put public funds into solving the problem if private capital may come in on its own,” said Gypsum Town Manager Jeremy Rietmann.
Comcast is the latest private company to express interest in improving broadband service to lower Eagle County.
As consumers know, local internet service is available through several operators. Comcast’s entry to the market would be a multi-million endeavor, Rietmann said. He said franchise discussions with the cable company have started.
“Comcast is interested in expanding into our market as well,” Eagle Town Manager Brandy Reitter said.
Comcast’s expansion would involve setting up cable television service, which would include broadband service, throughout both towns. That means burying miles of cable — a massive undertaking.
“We know how important high speed, reliable internet is to connecting people to what matters most,” said Leslie Oliver, director of media and external communications for Comcast. “Comcast is excited to be working with the towns of Eagle and Gypsum on plans to expand our existing Eagle County footprint, and extend the full suite of our products and services — including video, residential and commercial high-speed broadband — into those two communities.”
Rietmann said Gypsum’s discussions with Comcast include searching for an appropriate hub site, mapping out the construction needs and looking for joint trenching opportunities.
“We are really hoping these discussions go someplace,” Rietmann said. “We think it would be transformative for the quality of internet service in town.”
The “in town” part of that statement reveals a catch. Increasing broadband service in Eagle County will be a massive undertaking, regardless of how it is approached and Reitter noted that its unlikely that one company or project can totally solve the issue.
She also noted that glitches can happen in any system, and broadband redundancy means outages will be less impactful. Additionally, Reitter said Project THOR is not a last-mile effort that brings services directly to customers. Instead, it is an effort to establish a network that private entities can use.
“Having more broadband in a community is a good thing, regardless of whether it is owned as a public entity or as a private entity,” Reitter said.