If you are a Park County resident who does not have high-speed internet access at your place of residence or business, that might be changing sooner rather than later.

If you do happen to enjoy the luxury of high-speed internet access, you should probably thank the people who have worked so diligently in recent years as part of the Park County broadband initiative.

The purpose of the Park County Broadband Advisory Board, as stated on the Park County website www.parkco.us, is to advise the Board of County Commissioners and other county staff and officials on how to enhance telecommunications in Park County in order to facilitate economic development, attract new residents, and improve, manage, and keep abreast of telecommunications trends and developments that affect or relate to telecommunications in Park County.

The advisory board has been serving these stated purposes now for more than six years, and the results have been impressive. This is the first of two stories about the work that has been done as part of the Park County broadband initiative, as well as upcoming plans and projects for the very near future and beyond.

Technically speaking

According to the FCC, the definition of broadband internet is a minimum of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. Broadband provides high-speed internet access via multiple types of technologies including fiber optics, wireless, cable, DSL and satellite.

The term broadband refers to wide bandwidth data transmission and most commonly pertains to high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access. Broadband provides access to the highest quality internet services, such as videoconferencing for telehealth, that require large amounts of data transmission. Broadband access is constant.

Broadband internet service is currently the most popular form of internet access because of its high access speeds. The old dial-up connection is the only non-broadband internet service available, and even though it is cheaper, most internet users are moving towards the faster broadband internet connection.

Is broadband the same thing as Wi-Fi? No. Broadband and Wi-Fi are related but not synonymous. Broadband is a type of internet connection given by your internet service provider. Wi-Fi is a technology and one of the means of connecting to the broadband to access the internet.

Fiber-optic internet, commonly called fiber internet or simply “fiber,” is a broadband connection that can reach speeds of up to 940 Mbps, with low lag time. The technology uses fiber optic cable, which amazingly can send data as fast as about 70% the speed of light.

Fiber optic cables are by far the best technology to provide users with fiber optic internet, but those cables must be physically installed. That is sometimes a difficult task in the sparsely-populated and geologically rugged confines of Park County.

A tall order

In 2016, The Flume’s correspondent Flip Boettcher wrote a detailed article about the challenges faced in delivering cell phone and internet coverage to residents throughout Park County.

“Park County is composed of different communities, all mostly without broadband and cell phone services, but Park County is one of two counties in the state working on the problem,” Boettcher wrote.

She also quoted former Park County Commissioner Mike Brazzell, who explained the challenges of expanding broadband capacity throughout the county.

“But, like roads, it is never done,” Brazell said. “Just to keep up, not expand, with current use, broadband capacity needs to double every year. The trend for broadband use and need is only expected to increase. Telecommunication services don’t just happen; you have to do something. Broadband needs to be built into an area’s infrastructure, just like power, water and sewer services.”

Boettcher also noted: “To get rural telecommunications it takes public and private financing as well as partnerships, Brazell added. In February, 2016, the Park County Board of County Commissioners created an 11-member Park County Broadband Advisory Board.”

At that time, the county was ambitiously planning to complete what it referred to as the middle mile of fiber optic installation throughout the U.S. Highway 285 corridor. The county worked with the Department of Local Affairs to help procure funding for the venture, while simultaneously explaining the importance of the project to residents via the county website:

“Park County is in the process of developing a community-owned middle mile broadband backbone network for the county. Multiple carriers will provide connection points for last mile providers to access broadband. From the broadband website, “High-speed broadband is the basic infrastructure of the digital age, just like power, streets and water. Access to high-speed broadband will be a requirement for all aspects of our lives, including education, health, business and government transactions and our social connections. Lack of access to high-speed broadband will have a crippling effect on a region’s economic future.”

The middle mile (not necessarily a mile) connects the backbone and the local network access point, like an internet service provider, from whom you purchase your internet service. The last mile is how service gets from the ISP to your home or business. Last mile broadband is typically delivered by telephone companies, cable television providers or fiber optic cable. Satellite is a last mile provider, but because of its slower download speeds, it is not considered high-speed broadband.

Led by key players such as Brazell and broadband initiative board chairman John Carr, the advisory board developed a strategy and began working in selected areas to deliver high-speed broadband to as many Park County homes and businesses as possible.

Today, the middle mile portion of the project has been virtually completed. Now the broadband initiative is focusing on what is referred to as the last mile – delivering broadband services to specific businesses and homes.

Before discussing future plans and endeavors for additional broadband delivery, however, an accounting of progress and accomplishments over the last five years is in order. Much has been done, and the result of that work has been immensely beneficial to residents countywide.

Job well done

The broadband initiative has required a collaborative effort between public and private entities, as well as state and county governmental entities. Of the locations where the middle mile of infrastructure has been completed, all but one have been state funded, at least in part, by DOLA. In some cases, state and county resources have been used in tandem to fund projects.

Some, but not all of the recent locations where the middle mile has been completed include the Crow Hill area, the stretch along U.S, Highway 285 from Shawnee to Platte Canyon High School, Fairplay schools and city offices, the Town of Alma and the community of Lake George.

Each of these projects was publically funded with the exception Lake George, and it will be connecting to fiber originating in Colorado Springs. Alma went wireless, and is utilizing a state-funded tower to support its broadband needs.

“Fiber is possible in some places, but satellites are the only option in others,” explained Carr. “It’s not always easy because of our sparse population and rugged terrain, but it is our objective to provide high-speed internet services to people who don’t have it.”

Because of mountainous geological features found in much of Park County, placing fiber optics in the ground isn’t always a practical strategy. Laws, and interpretations of those laws, can be complicating factors as well.

“We don’t have the benefit of easements because we are not considered to be a utility,” Carr explained. “The Park County commissioners passed an ordinance that internet providers can put poles on rights-of-way, and that helped quite a bit.”

From conceptualization to execution, it has been a massive undertaking to get the middle mile of broadband completed throughout the entirety of the county along U.S. Highway 285. Many dedicated people and a variety of entities have contributed to the effort.

According to Carr, however, it has been former county commissioner Brazell who has been at the forefront of the effort since the inception of the initiative and the development of the advisory board.

“Mike Brazell has been a major contributor to the broadband initiative from the beginning,” Carr said. “And Park County would not be nearly as far along as it is without his efforts, and his leadership.”

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