A sudden drop in cell service, an Internet outage or aggravatingly slow service may be a source of frustration, but the effects of limited broadband stretch beyond these concerns. Spotty cell service can be a safety issue in more remote Summit County neighborhoods, while unreliable Internet can be damaging to local businesses.
With the voter approval of ballot measure 1A in November, the county is exempt from restrictions to creating broadband networks as detailed in Colorado Senate Bill 152. Now, Summit is looking into the specifics of meeting the growing need for connectivity.
“It really is a utility. It’s an essential service. And it’s becoming more critical in our society every day,“ Nate Walowitz, regional broadband coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG) said at a Frisco conference in February.
Assistant county manager Scott Vargo said the county hoped to hire a consulting and engineering firm by April to study and plan for broadband improvements. Areas with little or no service, such as the Lower Blue River Basin, Montezuma and others are considered as high-priority projects.
“Those are a couple of places that are certainly high on the list,” he said. He added the plan would not only encompass those projects, but also bring busy “core areas” upgraded to services on par with resources available in the Front Range.
“We’ll have a roadmap going forward on how to improve those areas,” he said. “They’ll do some engineering work to understand where are the coverage weaknesses we have, what’s required to improve services and if there is one particular location that would work well.”
He added they hoped to have a plan in place for the end of the summer. With the help of a $25,000 Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant, some financing will be in place, at least, for the initial study.
A CRITICAL NEED
Both visitors and locals are put at a disadvantage when service drops — either when cell towers become overloaded due to busy weekend activity or a cable is cut during construction season.
Last summer, several cuts resulted in sweeping outages across the county. Comcast has since added a new fiber from Vail through Glenwood Springs, allowing Summit County continued service even in the event of a cut.
“When all else fails, public safety needs a network they can use, so first responders can bring resources in,” Walowitz said.
With plans dropped for two AT&T towers in the Lower Blue and Keystone, John Hillman, chair of the Friends of the Lower Blue Safety Committee, noted the dangers in having to drive miles to call for help.
“We desperately need cell service for public safety,” he said in a previous interview. “For about 10 years, we’ve been trying to get cell service in the Lower Blue.”
Vargo noted Summit County’s broadband needs extend as far as education; with more schools using online resources, students without any or enough service at home may be put at a disadvantage.
A year ago, the Federal Communications Commission upgraded the definition of broadband to 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream.
“There are a limited number of areas where that’s actually available today in Summit County,” Walowitz said. “It’s becoming more and more imperative for folks to at least have some access to broadband at that level or higher. It’s a question of how to we target development, and how do we work in concert with private providers to be able to make these projects affordable and practical?”
According to the “Regional Broadband Strategic Plan” spearheaded by NWCCOG in 2013, some businesses in the area would need wireless speeds of 20-30 Mbps, though some may need upwards of 100Mbps. NWCCOG is looking to update the study to reflect current technology and provide more detail on the region’s needs.
“We like to joke that broadband is Internet access that is faster than whatever you have now,” the study read. “But in some senses, the joke is real.”
The study outlined goals of increasing capacity, decreasing and improving reliability to improve broadband within the region. For some businesses, fast speeds are a necessity, especially for data-heavy services or telecommuters conducting video calls.
“I was taught a long time ago, if you don’t have high-speed Internet and coffee, you’re going to go out of business,” Aaron Landau, founder of the tech-focused Evo3 Workspace in Frisco. “I can’t stress enough how important that is to us.”
While Evo3 hasn’t had issues with broadband speed, the limited consistency of Internet countywide is a current concern. He noted that while there is fiber-optic cable in the ground, most of it is dark. The cost of connecting it to his business was about $10,000.
“It’s a struggle, not just in Summit County, but in Colorado in general,” he said. “It’s something we need now. We needed it yesterday. It’s going to be one of the most critical things for us to have as a county if we want to continue to grow.”
To allow video conferences and other data-heavy uses, he said they wired the building with Ethernet cables to allow for multiple access points, and put less strain on WiFi.
“We were able to do this because we essentially gutted the place, and decided to over-spec the network as much as we could,” he said.
With his business already at double the forecasted members, he estimated an upgrade will be necessary at some point in the future.
“We’re still able to do business and thrive out here,” he said. “But we’ve forecasted some pretty big things, and we need to be sure the infrastructure is gonna be able to keep up.”
A DIVERSE ECONOMY
For the big-picture, local business leaders noted that improved broadband would be crucial to driving more sustainable jobs to Summit County, allowing locals to pursue higher-paying jobs outside of the tourism and service industries.
“We have a lot of young people coming into community looking for jobs where they can support their families,” said Lindsay Stapay, director of the Northwest Colorado Small Business Development Center. “The people make the town.”
While Summit County’s median household income and average personal incomes are above the national average, about 40 percent of all jobs countywide have the lowest median incomes of all industries tracked by Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
A feasibility study for an incubator conducted by the Small Business Development Center in 2015 noted that about 25 percent of jobs in Summit County are in the accommodation and food service sector, which traditionally pays low wages. Meanwhile, 32 percent of all personal income countywide comes from dividends, interest and rent, not earned income.
“The state demographer has noted there appears to be a relationship between the availability of broadband and economic development,” Walowitz said.
The NWCCOG reports that Colorado’s top five industries are tourism and outdoor recreation, health and wellness, creative industries (including textiles, brewers, engineers and architects), financial services and infrastructure engineering. Stapay’s focus is helping grow businesses in these sectors with more liveable wages.
“Instead of saying we’re looking for jobs, we’re looking for careers,” Stapay said. “If we can help create three or five of those annually, that’s what we call economic gardening — it’s growing from within.”
The Small Business Development Center is currently looking at the feasibility of creating a makerspace in Summit County, which would provide equipment that an individual might not be able to purchase, such as 3-D printers or design software.
“We’ve got quite a few inventors, from dog leashes, to fertilizer, to boot manufacturing,” Stapay said. “It’s looking at both sides of the scale, looking at what’s going to benefit our community to support the concept of innovation.”
NWCCOG, meanwhile, is looking at updating its broadband study to meet requirements in a fast-changing industry.