Following in Summit County’s footsteps, Breckenridge aims to tackle broadband issues come election time.
Town residents will be voting on ballot measure 2A this November. The measure will make the town exempt from Colorado Senate Bill 152, which passed in 2005. The law prevents towns and counties throughout the state from creating their own broadband networks. Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said that part of the reason this bill initially passed was because at the time the state felt that private companies should be handling broadband issues, not municipalities. But she said that many companies did not see monetary gain from building in smaller towns.
“Private entities do very well in metro areas, but not very well in rural areas,” she said.
If measure 2A passes, it will allow Breckenridge to seek funding, whether private or through grants, to improve cellular and internet coverage. The measure states that the town must do this without increasing taxes.
“Adequate broadband, adequate cellular coverage, the potential to establish a wi-fi network, are all options that could be good for the town, but are not things we can help do currently,” said Brian Waldes, director of finance and information technology in Breckenridge. “Only if we pass that ballot measure we will be able to explore options for improving those kinds of services.”
During the Sept. 27 Breckenridge Town Council meeting, the council passed a resolution to express their support of measure 2A, which passed unanimously. They also passed resolutions on measures 3A and 3B, on school district funding, as well as the housing ballot measure 5A. Those resolutions also passed unanimously.
“Our biggest fear is that people see this thing on the ballot and they just don’t know what it is. So they’re afraid to vote yes, or they just skip it,” Waldes said.
Summit County has been struggling with broadband issues for the last several years. After AT&T went back and forth with the county about building cellular towers in 2014, county officials continued to push to have it built. The county was working with the company to build two towers, one on Landfill Road between Keystone and Summit Cove, and the second north of Silverthorne on Johnson Road. But, in June of 2015, AT&T officially pulled the plug. As a result, the county proposed and passed a similar ballot measure in November of that year to take broadband matters into their own hands. The measure passed with a landslide of 87 percent of voters, according the Community Broadband Networks Initiative.
Stiegelmeier said that the Department of Local Affairs in Colorado does have funding available for broadband projects, but it can’t be accessed unless a town or county passes a ballot measure to exempt them from SB 152.
“There really isn’t a reason to vote no,” she said.
Once the county passed the measure, they were able to bring in CTC Technology and Energy, a communications consulting firm, to find problem areas throughout the county. Scott Vargo, Summit’s county manager said that the group is looking at how the county can leverage its resources. Since they can now use grant money for these kinds of projects, he’s hoping that will incentivize companies into bringing coverage to underserved, or completely un-served, areas. Vargo said that using resources could give the county more flexibility.
“It at least gives us the opportunity to go out on our own,” he said.
CTC has also done requests for information, speaking with cellular companies, as well as towns throughout Summit County, including Breckenridge. This will all be compiled into a report due later this month.
If the measure passes, Breckenridge would be able to do the same thing, Waldes said. He said a lot of the information the town has on broadband issues comes from concerned citizens. Many of the issues stem from peak tourism times such as the holidays and spring break.
“We could potentially engage a consulting firm who could look at what our pinch points are, why they exist and how we could potentially make them better, either ourselves or with the help of a public or private party. We can’t do that right now,” Waldes said.
The county is continuing to fight with major cellular companies on improving cellular service. Verizon has built one low site and has plans to build more. But, there is concern that the locations will not service areas with the most need. Low sites, while cheaper to build and easier to maintain than cellular towers, do not provide the same amount of coverage.
One of the biggest arguments for passing the measure in the county was improving cellular service for emergency services. Vargo said that this may not be quite as big of a problem in Breckenridge since they have more infrastructure in place. But in rural areas, it continues to be a problem. He added that the companies that already provide service in Summit County are at least looking at the lack of coverage for emergency purposes.
“There certainly is an understanding on the public safety component,” he said.