Broadband Is Not Just About Fast Internet

My first week as a new staffer at the Estes Park EDC was eventful. The events of March 23rd and 24th should not go un-noticed or forgotten. At approximately 5:00 pm on March 23rd, heavy snowfall severed 72 strands of fiber optic cable that serve as the only current source for internet and cell phone connectivity in Estes Park, Colorado. Across the Estes Valley there was a collective sigh of frustration as individuals realized their connectivity was gone. Within minutes people started to realize it wasn’t just them. Other office mates or family members didn’t have connectivity either.

The full ramifications of the problem slowly made themselves apparent. In the offices of the Town of Estes Park, the Police Commander, the Town Administrator, Assistant Town Administrator, Public Information team, I.T. Department and additional people who were key to the initial plan, met within minutes of the outage. This was quickly turning into a life safety issue, as 9-1-1 was out for a portion of the outage. (But dispatch remained in service.)

All around town, gas stations, restaurants, retail establishments and hotels and lodges had their point of sale systems go offline. People tried calling people they knew to find out what was going on, but were unable. People tried to check Facebook for an update but were unable. People who have copper land line phones were able to call within the Estes Valley but could not call long distance.

The next morning, people woke up to a very silent world. While some businesses were able to take credit cards and hold the information until internet returned, others only took cash or closed for the day. If you needed cash, all of the ATM’s in town were offline. For those who did go to work, if you had a scheduled meeting, it was “wait and see who shows up.”
Utilizing the existing fiber ring that we have around the Estes Valley is not just about fast internet. It’s about economic stability and vitality, government operations, educating our children and being able to communicate with the world during an emergency.

In February of last year, Estes Park residents voted overwhelmingly to approve a measure to allow the town to directly or indirectly offer broadband. The election results showed that 1,652 (92 percent) of the 1,788 ballots approved of considering expanded services.

Since that time the Town, in partnership with Estes Park EDC, completed a contract for broadband business planning with NEO Fiber Consulting, a national firm that looked at several potential business models for providing affordable, high-speed, redundant broadband that detailed and examined a variety of business models (from all private, to open access or municipal) to predict which models are best able to recover capital costs over time in a way that ensured that the service was both widely available and affordable.

Since last July, the Town has continued its due diligence concerning plans for expanded broadband. A second survey of local residents tested pricing and what percentage of customers would likely subscribe. As a further step toward implementation, the Town has applied for a $1.4 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), which would pay for the detailed engineering work in thirteen specified regions of the Estes Park utility area. The engineering study could also show feasibility of other redundancy options such as through the Alva Adams Tunnel.

With redundancy first in mind, the Town also has worked for some time with the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) on installing a second fiber connection to the Estes Valley. Recent events only re-affirm the need to proceed with the PRPA plan.

There are some within our community that worry the capital cost of broadband is too high. The estimated $27-$30 million cost of building a full region-wide Fiber to the Home network sounds out of reach. In fact, the business plan allows for phased implementation. Any phase should only be implemented when customers demonstrate a willingness to subscribe. For example, providing service to both of our downtown business core and Highway 34 and 36 corridors would require a capital investment of less than $3 million. Detailed cost and revenue estimates demonstrate that the investment can be made prudently, with affordable pricing that allows for recovering the Town’s investment.

The broadband initiative is just one example of how we can improve economic vitality while benefitting our whole community.