By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff

As local governments grapple with questions about providing broadband Internet service to area homes and businesses, one local provider has been hooking up “community anchor institutions” in Carbondale for years and stands ready to begin signing up residential customers as well, according to a company spokesman.

A year-long study of broadband-related issues for Garfield and Mesa counties was concluded recently by NEO Fiber, a consulting company with offices in Glenwood Springs, and Garfield County officials earlier this year began discussions with the six municipalities within the county on how to get broadband service to as many town and county residents as possible.

In May, however, the Board of County Commissioners decided to initially work to provide wireless “broadband” capability to those parts of the county that currently have the slowest connections to the Internet.

In the meantime the towns, including Carbondale, are looking for their own solutions, which might ultimately involve working in partnership with the county and with NEO Fiber.

At this point, though, Carbondale has the most experience working with Cedar Networks, which has offices in Durango and in Carbondale, and provides fiber-network assistance to communities in Colorado and New Mexico.

Chris Stebner, who works in the sales end of Cedar Networks out of its Carbondale office, told The Sopris Sun last week that his firm has been working with the Roaring Fork School District, Colorado Mountain College, the City of Glenwood Springs, the Town of Carbondale, the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District and other “anchor institutions,” or large public organizations, to extend fiber-optic cables capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to a Gigabits (or 1,000 Megabits per second) per second.

Presently, though, he said Cedar Networks, using more “traditional” technology such as copper cable, is able to offer speeds of 100 Mbps or more to customers here in town.

Stebner, who has been with the company for about 13 years, all of it spent on the Western Slope, said the company is focusing on wired technology because it is capable of carrying considerably more data per second than wireless technology, and because it does not depend on line-of-sight transmission needed for most wireless technology.

And in Carbondale, he said, enough fiber-optic cable already has been installed that he believes he could immediately connect as much as 30 percent of the town at $60 per month for Internet service and $70 per month for both Internet and phone, though few individual home consumers have signed up.

“We’ve got pretty good connectivity here,” he said, using the utility poles and conduit wherever it is available, to the point where “once a week or so, we get a home user in Carbondale that gets fiber.”

In an email, Stebner wrote that the company has installed roughly 3,000 “strand miles” of fiber throughout the valley, aimed at providing what is known as “last mile” service to end users in homes and businesses.

Cedar also has begun work on “connecting underserved and unserved areas in between” Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, Stebner said.

The company’s major local-service campaign began about seven or eight years ago, he said, when the Roaring Fork School District contacted Cedar Networks about obtaining broadband services at a cheaper monthly rate than was being offered by another firm.

Cedar Networks came up with a plan, Stebner said, “So we were able to build them cable, increase their speed a thousandfold, in some cases, for basically what they were spending” under the previous deal.

And in Carbondale, he added, many of those who already have signed up are in various ways connected to the school district, which is how they learned about the availability of fiber service.

He noted that, in Carbondale, Cedar primarily has been working with Xcel Energy, which is prodded by the state Public Utilities Commission regulations to provide access to companies in order to expand broadband service in rural areas.

Although he stressed that Ceder’s fiber-optics are not designed to accommodate TV signals, such as the ones provided by Comcast as part of a franchise agreement with the town, the Internet connection does allow end users to connect with online video services. He also pointed out that, while wireless broadband is “a good solution” for the rural, remote areas of the county, it can provide speeds of only about 10 Megabits of data per second for downloading to a home computer, and only about 1 Megabit for uploading to the Internet.

At those speeds, he continued, the service “doesn’t even meet the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband,” which he said is 25 Megabits for downloading, 10 Megabits for uploading.

The Town of Carbondale, which has been more than happy to work with Cedar Networks to provide better Internet service in the area, has yet to sign a formal agreement with any company.

Town Manager Jay Harrington confirmed that Cedar has hooked up Town Hall, the public works department, the town pool, Sopris Park and the town recreation center, but not the utilities department, and that the town is looking at ways it can facilitate the extension of broadband service to all of Carbondale, whether with Cedar, CenturyLink or Comcast.

“If we had a Gig (Gigabit) to every household, that would certainly put us on the map,” Harrington mused.

He added that, even though the town is only about one-third eligible for broadband connections, it already is marked by State of Colorado officials as being one of the few communities referred to as “Gigabit municipalities.”

Harrington said that future cooperative efforts with Garfield County and nearby municipalities is being planned, and that a “formal agreement” with Cedar might one day cover such issues as marketing the service, reliability issues and perhaps setting up “joint trenching agreements” for running conduit and fiber optics to areas not yet getting broadband service.