By Caitlin Switzer

MONTROSE–in Hong Kong, one can obtain high-speed internet service for just $25 a month. Here in Montrose, slower, less reliable service costs far more. And the situation will not correct itself–with little competition, private providers can be complacent when it comes to charging high rates for outdated or absent technology. Those key facts and others were shared by City of Montrose Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement Virgil Turner, who joined Region 10 Executive Director Michelle Haynes for an informative talk on the state of local Broadband for a League of Women Voters presentation at the Montrose Library Nov. 12.

“This is one of the most important issues we are talking about as a community,” Turner said. “It is of critical importance–we live in a data-driven world…yet Montrose ranks 61st out of 70 Colorado communities for download speeds, and Colorado ranks 32nd in the nation for broadband speed.

“We’re not quite where we want to be.”

Turner discussed the state of the local industry, and passed around samples of old copper phone line such as is typically in place in Montrose, as well as samples of fiber.

“This is the technology we have,” he said of the copper. “It’s so slow. With fiber, we will be using pulses of light. Why can’t we make the transition?”

Turner discussed city efforts to move community broadband forward, such as the city’s “Dig Once” resolution to place fiber in the ground any time a trench is open for any reason; efforts to partner with local last-mile providers; a close working relationship with Region 10; and Montrose’s recent inclusion in the national 21st Century Cities initiative.

“This is a tough, tough issue,” Turner said. “It’s going to be hard for us, and we need to strike the right balance between private enterprise and the public sector. There is just not enough return on investment for it to happen organically, and council is committed to this.

“We are now looking at ways to get fiber optic to our citizens,” Turner said.

Because Region 10, as a council of governments, is tasked with developing an economic development strategy for a six-county area, taking the lead on implementation of a regional broadband blueprint has been essential, said Region 10 Director Michelle Haynes.

“There is a direct correlation with broadband and the health of the economic development environment in our six counties,” she said. “And the need extends beyond business–I have three teenagers, and they do a lot of their homework online. Laptops are an issue in our house around 7 p.m., but broadband is even more of one, because we live out on Spring Creek.”

Health care is also impacted by the level of broadband available, she said.

“A clinic in one of our communities recently lost access to its records when the Internet went down,” Haynes said. “So we are asking, what can we do to ensure adequate broadband in our area, and what will it take to get us there, so that our students, our doctors and our businesses have access to the level of infrastructure they need to compete in today’s environment.”

Region 10 has contracted with NEOFiber of Glenwood Springs to create a blueprint for implementation of broadband throughout the region, and is seeking grants for infrastructure construction.

“In six months, we’ll have a plan,” Haynes said. “It will be expensive–we have geographic challenges here like canyons and mountains.  But we have tried to understand where our assets are; we are trying not to replicate, but to use what we have in a cost-effective way.

“We want abundancy, redundancy and affordability,” she said. “We want to know what it would take to complete the circuits, close the gaps, and make service more efficient.”

Current realities include the fact that “a wire hanging on a fence somewhere near Gunnison” presently serves as a vital connection, and that there is little incentive for last mile providers to make big changes any time soon.

“We are encouraging speed tests, so we can challenge assumptions regarding coverage here,” Haynes said. “And I feel that in rural regions, cooperatives will be important to this effort, so we are working with DMEA to work through their issues.

Both Turner and Haynes added that additional community meetings will be held as broadband work progresses. Region 10 currently offers a link to the statewide speed test from their web site, http://www.region10.net/how-fast-is-your-internet/.