Program helps bridge the broadband divide
Grand County, CO Colorado
It’s used for purchases, billings and credit card payments, it’s used for data sharing, communicating, educating, ordering, marketing and entertaining.
Ask someone like Grand County’s Information Systems Director Martin Woros, and he’ll say the Internet is paramount to Grand County’s economic future.
“The natural resource in Grand County is people,” said Woros.
“How do we market people? How do we take this resource and profit from it? The dynamics of tomorrow’s industry is going to be ‘how fast is your network?’ Now, business boundaries are outside of Grand County, outside of Colorado. They’re global.”
But Grand County’s broadband availability has some catching up to do.
A study by the Governor’s Office of Information Technology found that Internet service in Grand County is barely 60 percent of the reliability, availability and cost of service on the Front Range.
Grand County is part of the Colorado Broadband Data and Development Program, funded through a $5.3 million federal grant to the state.
In addition to mapping broadband services that exist throughout the state, the Governor’s Office seeks solutions to broadband “poverty” on local levels. A Northwest Colorado Local Technology Planning Team is busily surveying the region.
Although certain Grand County areas lack in broadband reliability, affordability and availability overall, according to Woros, there is one area in particular that starves for better Internet: Kremmling.
With a 2009 population base of about 1,641 in Kremmling compared to 650 people in the neighboring town of Hot Sulphur Springs, it’s unclear why Kremmling residents and business owners on average are paying about 10 times the amount for every megabit per second (Mbps), Woros said.
The reason is mainly due to a lack of competition against Qwest in Kremmling, the sole wholesale provider in the area owning the infrastructure.
In other parts of the county, where both Comcast and Qwest are providers, broadband availability and affordability can depend on what side of the highway corridor you live on and how far away from the highway you are, Woros said.
The Federal Communication Commission has defined “broadband” as downloading speeds of 4 Mbps and uploading speeds of 1 Mbps to meet the demands of today’s web – for example, coursework, banking and healthcare record-keeping.
Under that criteria, as many as 19 of Colorado’s 64 counties are deemed “unserved,” according to the Governor’s Office of Information Technology.
Governor Hickenlooper has put broadband access toward the top for improving the state’s economic viability.
“School districts (taxpayers) are paying 10-times the national average (in Colorado) for bandwidth and transport,” states a PowerPoint report from the state office.
And the capacity of broadband in the U.S. as a whole is lagging way behind European and Asian communities.
A varied market
The disparities found in Internet costs is evident from town to town in Grand County.
At Grand County government offices in Hot Sulphur Springs, where both Comcast and Qwest provide service, a 10 Mbps commercial download connection costs the county about $60 per month, or $6 per Mbps, according to Woros.
Yet at the county emergency building in Kremmling, formerly the “Pepsi” building, the cost of Internet to the county is $79 a month for 1.3 Mbps, Woros said.
The Kremmling Memorial Hospital District has been paying about $800 per month for a 3 Mbps commercial connection in Kremmling, according to Hospital Network Administrator Joe Palmer.
That system has been inadequate for the needs of the hospital, he said.
Oftentimes the hospital must send X-rays and diagnostics to other providers for review.
“There’s a huge amount of data that has to travel. Without a large and fast connection, it impacts health care,” Palmer said.
Now, thanks to a federal grant for which the district applied a few years ago, the district will soon be part of the Colorado Telehealth Network with the installation of fiber-optic cable.
That type of connection could bring the district about 40 Mbps, Palmer said. “A CAT scan over the current connection would take 30 to 40 minutes before it arrives,” Palmer said. With the new connection, that time could be cut to 5 minutes.
The district will pay a higher monthly price for the service, about $1,300 with the grant picking up another 75 percent of the monthly cost, plus the cost of trenching fiber optic to the hospital.
Since the grant application took place prior to the construction of the Middle Park Medical Center in Granby, however, the district may not be able to afford the same 40 Mbps service there. So far, pricing for that quality of Internet has come in at $30,000 for installation with $6,000 per-month payments, Palmer said.
It’s evident to Woros how broadband size and cost could make or break economic development and retention in any area, he said.
For rural places that are under-served, Woros said, ultimately the key will be driving competition to those areas, encouraging more towers and more providers who can break up and sell Internet to make it more affordable.
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