Towns want more time for better solution to local Internet upgrades
Written by Seth Mensing   
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Swapping planned microwave technology for fiber-optics

In less than a year, Eagle-Net Alliance is scheduled to wrap up its work building the infrastructure to give rural Colorado communities better access to the broadband Internet they need to remain competitive in the information age. But local leaders across Gunnison County and the Western Slope are saying the plan falls short of what is needed.


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In a draft letter to the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep says Eagle-Net’s plan to cover the state’s rural areas in a broadband network using microwave-based technology, instead of more robust fiber-optic cable, is the quickest way to get the job done, but it’s not the best.
In his draft asking the NTIA to review Eagle-Net’s coverage plan, Huckstep writes, “It became clear Eagle-Net was looking to find the easiest means of checking the contract box …”
That contract will bring more broadband to Gunnison through microwaves, where the enhanced service will also benefit broadband service in the upper end of the Gunnison Valley. Mt. Crested Butte Councilman David Clayton, who also sits on the county’s Local Technology Planning Team, says when the team considered microwave technology in the past, they gave it a three- to five-year life before it would need to be upgraded again.
According to the Eagle-Net website, the NTIA’s directive requires contractors to provide communities with Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabyte per second. The problem, the letter says, is that the gigabyte coming to the Gunnison Valley is being shared with other communities along the Highway 50 corridor between Montrose and Pueblo, as well as Lake City and areas of Hinsdale County.
That’s a lot of people to share 1 gigabyte, Clayton says.
At the same time, Internet use has changed dramatically even in the two years since the NTIA accepted Eagle-Net’s proposal, with larger files like music and movies being transferred more frequently than ever before.
“At a recent planning conference between Eagle-Net staff and local community stakeholders, the microwave plan was again questioned by local parties but it is clear that Eagle-Net does not understand the needs of the central mountain communities and is looking to complete their plan whether [or not] it will truly improve our broadband capabilities,” Huckstep writes.
As part of the county’s economic development effort, a Local Technology Planning Team came to the conclusion that “abundant, redundant and affordable broadband” was key to economic development in the valley.
Abundance is important because currently the sole land-based broadband provider to the valley, Century Link, is bringing as much information through its line as possible. Any increase in bandwidth would require another fiber-optic cable be run from Montrose.
A redundant system would be something new for the valley as well. Right now, should anything happen to the single line bringing broadband into the valley, there would be a regional telecommunications blackout. As Clayton told his council, “All it would take is one irresponsible backhoe driver.”
Affordability would be encouraged through competition, which Century Link doesn’t have right now. And if Eagle-Net won’t consider upgrading the system to fiber-optic cable, then we’ll live with microwave.
“We’re not trying to say they put fiber in or nothing at all. We’re saying fiber is the long term and best solution,” Clayton says. “We’ll take microwave for right now if that’s the only option we have. That’s what we want them to look at.”
A fact sheet distributed to the Mt. Crested Butte town council notes, “Our valley needs to the same level of service that is the norm in major cities if we are going to be successful growing and building profitable businesses into the future.”
Economic growth aside, even existing businesses are having a hard time maintaining their operations with the current system. Crested Butte Mountain Resort isn’t able to communicate effectively with the management support or accounting services it uses in Vermont, and Gunnison Valley Hospital stores its radiology patient records in the Cloud, so a blackout would be a game-stopper for that department.
Under the NTIA directive, Eagle-Net’s infrastructure is meant to serve the community’s vital institutions first—the schools, hospital and government buildings—before it sells the remainder of the broadband to an Internet provider.
Local officials who are concerned Eagle-Net’s proposed system is going to be inadequate to cover such a big task are asking the NTIA to relax the timeline, which they perceive to be driving Eagle-Net’s decision to pursue inferior microwave technology, instead of fiber-optics.
Fiber-optic cable would be more expensive to run; however, a preliminary nod of approval from TriState Generation and Transmission Association to use their infrastructure could significantly cut the cost, since they have a series of transmission line towers in place where the fiber-optic cable would need to go. And Clayton thinks Eagle-Net still has about half of the $100 million in NTIA grant money left to allocate.
According to the talking points, “Eagle-Net has stated that microwave is the only expedient method to put their broadband network to our valley. To that end they are trying to place microwave radios on existing towers and do not want to build towers themselves. In reality, they don’t have the time to build towers themselves and still meet their September 2013 deadline … Let us be clear that routes through the mountains exist for cables today.”
But for those arrangements to work, the appropriate rights-of-way would need to be cleared for telecommunications use and the plan Eagle-Net is pushing forward would need to be revised. That will take some time.
“It is our belief that the present timeline and allocation of funds makes the best and lasting solution improbable, if not impossible, and we feel that it would be a shame to not optimally use the funds that are available,” the letter says.
In his letter, Huckstep asks the NTIA to review Eagle-Net’s plan for all Colorado mountain communities to be sure the funds are being used to plan the best possible service. Clayton says the communities hope to get a response from the NTIA in the next few months, but adds, “I don’t know that we’ll get a response.”