SILVERTON – Silverton suffered a blow in the effort to improve its telecommunication infrastructure when on May 20 an administrative law judge for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission ruled that Qwest Communications (now CenturyLink) did not have to complete a 16-mile fiber-optic link into the San Juan County seat.
The decision means Silverton will remain, for now, the only county seat in Colorado that lacks a fiber-optic connection.
“We’re a little disappointed, but we’re not discouraged,” said Patrick Swonger, a Silverton town trustee and member of Operation Linkup, a grassroots organization dedicated to winning better broadband access for the region. “It’s just too important to our future,” Swonger said. “We’re not going to let this go.”
Silverton’s attorneys are requesting the full, three-member PUC hear the case. The town hopes to receive a second opinion from the full PUC within 30 to 60 days.
Silverton and San Juan County officials accuse Qwest of failing to complete a $37 million state contract to provide high-speed fiber-optic connections to every county seat by June 30, 2005.
Qwest laid fiber as far as Cascade Village, near Purgatory, but stopped there, saying it could not obtain rights of way all the way to Silverton.
Instead, Qwest completed the connection with a microwave-radio link-up that provides high-speed, but relatively limited, connectivity to Silverton. Qwest said the service complies with all applicable standards, and there is no need for a fiber network to provide additional broadband capacity.
Not so, say Silverton officials and business people, who say the remote community suffers both from a lack of redundancy in the system and debilitating slowdowns in service, especially when the town is full of tourists in the busy summer months.
CenturyLink Vice President of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs Jim Campbell wrote in an email to the Durango Herald following the decision: “We are pleased that the administrative law judge recognizes that the facilities deployed to serve Silverton supply the capacity needed both now and into the future.”
Judge G. Harris Adams presided at a two-day hearing on the matter in Silverton last December. Swonger said there was no explanation provided for why Qwest accepted a state contract to connect every county seat with fiber, but somehow was given a pass when it came to Silverton.
A fiber connection would create a diverse telecommunications system. As it is now, the microwave link is the only way 911 services come in and out of town, Swonger said.
And a fiber connection will become even more important as high-speed devices saturate the market, he said.
Swonger estimates Qwest saved $6-8 million in present-day dollars by providing a microwave link rather than completing the 16 miles of fiber from Cascade Village to Silverton.
“I just think they saw there weren’t that many people up here, and it was a way to cut corners on the contract,” he said.
Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett, a believer in the necessity of bandwidth for economic development, commented: “It’s definitely a blow.” Padgett has championed Silverton’s cause as a piece in the larger effort to create a fiber-optic loop that would connect numerous southwest Colorado communities. Without such a loop, and the system redundancy it would provide, she has said, high-tech businesses that otherwise love the area cannot consider moving here. The relative lack of bandwidth also hurts tourism.
One of the five goals of the Bottom-Up economic development process in Ouray County is to “connect Purgatory to Ouray with fiber optic,” she said. “It’s really really important. For the bandwidth, and to achieve redundancy in the system.
“It’s obvious if you look at CenturyLink’s map,” Padgett went on, “the whole Western Slope has very little infrastructure.” She said that for Qwest to “get out of the obligation,” would be disappointing. Other options do exist, she stressed. We could conceivably “approach San Miguel Power to use their right-of-way [over Red Mountain Pass] to get fiber in there. We’d be looking at $20-30 million,” though, she said.
“We might be small and poor, but we’re one of 64 county seats,” concluded Silverton’s Swonger, “and the Legislature funded fiber connectivity to every county seat. And the fact that we’re the only one without that is unacceptable.”