The sparsely populated and remote regions of Park County make broadband, or high-speed internet access, a challenging and sometimes complicated local issue. As residents of Park County could attest, life at elevation has its challenges.
Moreover, internet access has become more of a necessity than a luxury in recent years. Public institutions and private businesses of all types, and each of us as individuals, are impacted daily by the broadband infrastructure around us – or the lack thereof.
Perhaps that’s why it came as no surprise in late 2015, when residents identified broadband as the number two issue in the county – second only to roads – in a survey conducted by the Park County Board of County Commissioners.
Interestingly, in a similar survey in 2000, broadband and internet capabilities ranked 35th (dead last) on the list of priorities for Park County residents.
Since the time of the 2015 survey, however, Park County has made remarkable strides in broadband development. Park County, in fact, passed one of the state’s first ballot initiatives (SB-152 opt-out) to allow the county to commit its time and resources to resolving the issue of broadband services.
In the years that followed, 80 percent of Colorado counties have followed suit with similar measures. Park County also received some of the first grant funds from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to start laying the groundwork for better broadband services.
The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and the Park County Broadband Advisory Board (PCBAB) have worked closely with state agencies and local internet service providers, and have also tapped into federal programs to build networks in Bailey, Fairplay and Alma, bringing improved broadband capabilities to schools, libraries and local fire houses.
“These projects are so important for Park County in part because they will drive an influx of residential and business entities into the county, resulting in economic growth,” said John Carr, who serves as chairman of the Park County Broadband Advisory Board.
While many of the early goals identified by the BOCC and the PCBAB in the five-year regional broadband plan have been met, more work remains to be done.
The county is currently participating in an update to the five-year plan with five surrounding counties to identify goals and projects to understand how best to work toward better services for homes and businesses.
“It’s an interesting situation when ninety-five percent of our goals have been accomplished, but we’ve only made about five percent of the impact that needs to ultimately be made,” said Park County Broadband Coordinator Alex Telthorst.
Park County has received statewide recognition for its efforts thus far in improving broadband services, prompting former governor John Hickenlooper to visit Platte Canyon School District last fall to celebrate that progress.
Platte Canyon School District, thanks to county-based broadband projects, once worked with just 250 Megabits-per-second (Mbps), but currently utilizes 700 Mbps across both campuses at no increased cost to the district.
The Bailey Library has one full Gigabit (Gbps) of service, with future capabilities for up to 10 Gbps.
During required tests, Guffey Charter School’s satellite internet connect proved inadequate. The county worked with the school, South Park Telephone (SPT), the El Pomar Foundation and other partners to bring SPT’s fixed wireless internet to the school, library and downtown businesses in Guffey.
Through the collective efforts between these private and public entities, online tests, research capabilities, and many more resources are now available via the internet at the school.
South Park School District RE-2’s Fairplay schools went from struggling to make required online testing work over a seven-Mbps link, to comfortably hosting the United States Forest Service Fire Command Center during last summer’s Weston Pass fire, as they now receive 200 Mbps over the county’s fiber network.
In Fairplay, the county went from paying $3000 monthly for seven-Mbps to
$2,100 for 300 Mbps.
Projects are currently wrapping up to bring a one-Gbps link to Alma, and a fiber project is planned for the downtown portion of Lake George during the summer of 2020. Broadband improvements in the Burland area near Bailey are also planned for the very near future.
Private sector growth within the broadband industry is also expected to bring business-grade fiber internet, better cell service and fast wireless internet to increasing numbers of residents and businesses in Park County, as South Park Telephone, RIS.net (Rural Internet Services), Neteo and Comnet are currently building branches off the county network.
Improved cell phone service is also an attractive benefit resulting from recent broadband projects, according to County Commissioner Mike Brazell.
“Ten new cell phone towers have been erected in Park County within about the last four years,” Brazell said. “Those towers are dependent upon, and interconnected with, the build-out of broadband infrastructure such as fiber. So these improvements attract cell phone providers, which of course results in better cell phone coverage for many Park County residents.”
Brazell has made broadband improvements a top priority during his tenure as a commissioner, and has been at the forefront in planning and implementing related projects.
Despite considerable progress in expanding high-speed internet access throughout Park County, residents in many parts of the county are still unable to benefit from a broadband connection.
The state has recently recognized the need for additional broadband infrastructure development, and has devoted two new funds equaling $120 million over five years to support private companies building out to support unserved communities, as well as an additional $25 million for local governments to do the same.
According to Brazell, the Bailey project came at a cost of about $1.5 million. Of that cost, the county paid about one-third, while the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), and federal grant funds accounted for the remainder.
According to Telthorst, county-wide broadband projects that have done so much for public entities have also laid the groundwork for improving services to homes, neighborhoods and local businesses in the very near future.
Telthorst also insists that the diligent development of partnerships has been the driving force behind recent broadband improvements, and that the continued development of such partnerships will play a central role in meeting future demands.
“I think one of the key takeaways here is that this is all about partners, and more partners,” Telthorst said. “Partnerships with the county, South Park Telephone, Mammoth Networks, CenturyLink, the Intermountain Rural Electric Association, Colorado Telehealth, Colorado Fiber Community and many others have been, and will continue to be, critical to Park County’s continued success.”
Residents throughout the 2,211-square-mile expanse of Park County are hoping those partnerships continue to produce positive results because, after all, virtually everyone would much prefer to have business-grade fiber internet, better cell service and fast wireless internet capabilities.
“It takes all of us working together,” Telthorst said. “Local, state and federal governmental entities, as well as private entities. These types of projects also require public input and participation. It’s important that citizens let us know their top priorities, what matters to them, and that they want to be a part of the process.”
Brazell agreed. “We have to have buy-in from local homeowners associations, as well as individual consumers,” Brazell said. “Consumers shouldn’t settle for three megs, when the new standard is one hundred megs, and the infrastructure is in place to make it available to them.”
Regular open meetings for the PCBAB occur from 10 a.m to noon on the second Monday of each month at the Fairplay Community Center, 880 Bogue Street. The public is welcome to attend.