EAGLE-Net Fiber Project Spurs CenturyLink Action
by Samantha Wright
Oct 11, 2012 | 2511 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print

OURAY COUNTY – The EAGLE-Net Alliance is on the brink of completing an extensive fiber-optic installation in Ouray, Montrose and Delta counties as part of its mandate to deliver a carrier-quality broadband network to more than 170 communities across the state.

But even as crews are busily digging trenches and laying in fiber, a number of area cable operators and telephone companies, including Comcast and CenturyLink, say EAGLE-Net’s federally funded effort to deliver services to anchor institutions is nothing more than a means to "cherry pick" their school and library customers.

Locally, at least, this argument doesn’t appear to hold much water. Several so-called community anchor institutions in Ouray County say they are still on the fence about whether they plan to take advantage of EAGLE-Net’s new fiber-optic infrastructure.

That’s because it turns out that competitor CenturyLink has just upgraded its own service in the area to be faster, and cheaper.

The Ridgway Public School, for example, has just renewed and expanded its contract with CenturyLink. “They were able to connect us with a different kind of hardware that allows for increased bandwidth,” Ridgway School IT specialist Tim Lyons noted.

The school district was also wary of entering a contract with a new provider with no track record, Superintendent Cheryl Gomez explained. “There was a fear factor that while they [EAGLE-Net] are figuring out their new world and capacity load, somehow our service would be sacrificed. A track record is really important.”

The City of Ouray and Town of Ridgway, too, are still weighing their options.

“The City is working to get a quote on the cost to run the fiber to city facilities,” said Ouray City Administrator Patrick Rondinelli. “We are also evaluating pricing through EAGLE-Net versus other providers. EAGLE-Net is offering package opportunities if we partner with Ouray County and Ridgway, but this is just one of the options we are looking at.”

Rondinelli’s down-valley counterpart, Ridgway Town Manager Jen Coates, echoed her colleague’s statement. “We are currently exploring options with the fiber installation, both with EAGLE-Net and others,” Coates said. “At this point, we are really in due diligence mode to understand options and opportunities.”

There is more excitement at Ouray School about the new EAGLE-Net installation. Superintendent Scott Pankow said the company will tap into the building with a fiber link sometime next week.

“We will go from three to 100 Mbps,” Pankow said. “That’s like going from an old jalopy to a brand new Corvette. This will be an outstanding educational adventure on the information superhighway!”

EAGLE-Net is contracted to provide a fiber-optic connection to every school district in the state, as well as many other community “anchor institutions” – 234 in all. For these entities, the company acts as its own Internet Service Provider, and is able to offer discounted co-op rates.

But EAGLE-Net’s infrastructure also exists as a “middle mile” (a sort of fiberoptic freeway) that “last mile providers” may tap into it and pass the bandwidth on to their own customers, as well.

“A last mile provider could be anyone, from OurayNet to CenturyLink, who wants to get bandwidth from somebody and sell it to the community,” explained Ouray-based IT expert John Lorimer, who is himself among the chorus of happy local CenturyLink customers.

Even at OurayNet, Ouray County’s local Internet Service Provider, CenturyLink appears to have beat EAGLE-Net to the punch.

“I just upgraded my bandwidth through CenturyLink,” OurayNet owner Kevin Karsh noted. “They sold me a new 100 Mbps circuit, and were offering up to a gig if I wanted it.”

Karsh, like others in the area, said he’s taking the “wait and see” approach to what EAGLE-Net has to offer. But, he added, “It’s nice to see some market pressure here; CenturyLink had a monopoly for a long time.”

Karsh thinks the potential threat of EAGLE-Net taking away established customers was a big motivator for CenturyLink to suddenly offer enhanced service in the area. His new bandwidth order is coming in at the end of month, and with it, an upgrade for all of his customers that will triple their bandwidth.

“I’m getting my new order for cheaper, and giving my customers more bandwidth,” he said. “In a town that’s been in a monopoly for as long as I have been in business, this is really exciting.”

Karsh added that he might tap into the EAGLE-Net fiber in the future, “as a redundancy” to what he already has.

In spite of the fact that EAGLE-Net’s statewide project is subsidized by a $100.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant, its presence in this area, at least, appears in these cases to be stimulating free enterprise at its best. So it is perhaps a bit ironic that the project is being attacked by some critics as “government-provided socialized broadband.”

A Republican delegation of Colorado lawmakers, in a letter to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration dated Sept. 17, called for an immediate halt to EAGLE-Net’s telecommunications build-out efforts currently underway across Colorado. “We are concerned that EAGLE-Net has engaged in overbuilding existing networks at the expense of Colorado’s longstanding rural telecommunications providers,” stated the letter, which was signed by Congressmen Cory Gardner, Mike Coffman, Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn.

Silverton is one place where EAGLE-Net will find many happy customers ... if it succeeds in getting there. The small mountain town is the only county seat in Colorado that is not connected to the rest of the state by fiber-optics, because Qwest (now CenturyLink) left it behind several years ago in a $37 million contract with the state of Colorado to link every county seat with reliable high-speed Internet access.

As such, Silverton is the one town that has the most to lose if progress on the EAGLE-Net project is stymied. Community leaders pointed this out in their own recent strongly-worded letter to Colorado lawmakers: “We stand firmly with our other underserved mountain communities in calling for the organization to use this federal grant award as an opportunity to deliver state-of-the-art connectivity where the private sector has failed to do so.”

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