Optical fiber for very high speed internet.

Garfield County seeks engagement on broadband goals

Middle mile infrastructure build underway as phase I comes to a close

June 12, 2023

Garfield County is planning formal engagement with prospective partners including local utilities and internet service providers (ISPs) in its broadband rollout and is applying for federal grant opportunities to help cover some of the cost of needed last mile infrastructure. The first phase of broadband implementation is nearly complete, and carrier neutral locations (CNL) are now being constructed in local municipalities as part of a larger effort to bring more resilient, reliable broadband to underserved local consumers.

“Things have been moving pretty fast and furious in the broadband world for the past few months,” said Garfield County Finance Director Jamaica Watts. “There’s some funding available that may play a role in the last mile of the project.”

Diane Kruse, chief executive officer for consultant NEO Connect, which is partnering with the county on broadband, told the Board of County Commissioners that there are two grant opportunities available, including the Capital Projects Fund and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grant. The board directed Kruse and staff that it wants a limited role in operating the infrastructure.

The Capital Projects Fund utilizes $161 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that the state is receiving, of which $40 million may be available to tier 2 counties like Garfield with a 25- to 50-percent match. The capital projects application is due later this summer.

The BEAD grant, which is administered through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, “provides $42.4 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment, and adoption programs in all 50 states,” according to the BEAD web page.

If awarded, these funds can only be utilized for last mile services to reach underserved neighborhoods in Garfield County. Each grant opportunity is paid out by the state, which initially applies for a portion of the federal funds. Colorado potentially could receive as much as $900 million toward projects through the BEAD grant program. Those applications are due in 2024, and the county can co-apply with an ISP for funding.

“If you’re a co-applicant, it gives you a little more control of where the services are being requested, the buildout schedule, and you could oversee some of the funding and the ISP would be the subrecipient of that grant,” Kruse explained of the process. “They would own the network, they would operate it, and provide services, but you have some control as the co-applicant.”

Phase II underway
Last year, Garfield County secured a more than $1.7 million grant from the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) toward phase II, in which CNLs are either already established or are being constructed in New Castle, Silt, and Parachute, and possibly another at the Garfield County Landfill, near Rifle, in the future.

The “middle mile” (phase II) infrastructure includes establishing access to large Internet hubs in Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City and connecting Rifle and Glenwood Springs to the fiber lines under Interstate 70.

The third phase of the project comprises the construction of “last mile” service that would reach customers who live outside of current service areas. Phase I saw CNL facilities in Glenwood Springs and Rifle, as well as connections established to CDOT’s fiber lines under Interstate 70.

Kruse told the board that connecting to the larger hubs helps lower the operating expenses for internet service providers (ISPs), which could simulate more investment in the local community for last mile service.

“The CNLs are places for them to store their equipment and then they’ll establish fiber connections to a statewide network that is being implemented currently,” she said. “The Rifle connection is complete and the CNL facility is up and running and operational. There are a couple of things we’re still working out in terms of connectivity for Glenwood Springs.”

Kruse added that another county partner, Region 10, is working with Glenwood Springs to lease its fiber lines to connect to the CNL facility in town. Another potential option is to work with Holy Cross Energy, which is looking to lease CDOT fiber lines under Grand Avenue in Glenwood. Region 10 leverages resources to help provide affordable, high-speed Internet service to Western Slope communities.

“Putting a facility in Glenwood Springs allows for further expansion, perhaps up to Missouri Heights or Colorado Mountain College – Spring Valley,” Kruse said. “Those areas are still drastically unserved for broadband service.”

Kruse added that as the owner of the network, the county has projected operating costs of roughly $63,000 annually for the middle mile and CNL facilities.

“This is still a losing proposition to me,” said Commissioner John Martin. “You have some households paying premium to get broadband, you have the ISP making money and using a facility that was put in using money from the taxpayers, and the taxpayers aren’t getting reimbursed for what they put in for somebody else using it and we continue to pay to upgrade it as taxpayers. That’s a bad business deal to me.”

The board directed Kruse and county staff to continue with its current strategy. Commissioner Martin was opposed to applying for the grants over concerns about strings attached to federal dollars and favored partnering with utilities to access fiber lines in the area.

Commissioners Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson favored applying for the grants and meeting with a wide range of stakeholders to find the best path forward.

“I think 99.9 percent of people want this and we’ll probably have to take the lead like we always do,” said Commissioner Samson. “Let’s get together and get a coalition of forces and let’s get this done.”