Stuck in the slow lane

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

THE EMPTY CONDUIT that will carry strands of fiber-optic cable to Dove Creek ends just a mile from town. The Eagle-Net project promised to connect rural Colorado communities like Dove Creek with broadband Internet, but a federal suspension of work has stalled the project, and many local residents, including Bryce Capron, are increasingly doubtful the project will meet its goals by an August deadline.

By Emery Cowan
Journal Staff Writer

Bryce Capron started downloading a computer game at 9 p.m. Monday. The next morning, more than 12 hours later, the program was only 19 percent finished.

"We're underserved, I'll put it that way," said Capron, who lives in Dove Creek. "I've watched this for three years, and I'm brokenhearted about it."

Capron was referring to Eagle-Net, a three-year project funded with $100 million in federal stimulus money that promises to connect more than 170 communities throughout the state with a 1 gigabit fiber-optic Internet connection.

The project has been on hold since December, when the federal government suspended Eagle-Net's grant citing environmental issues with the project's current routes and problems with permits and consultations with other agencies.

Eagle-Net officials say they expect the suspension to be lifted May 1 at the latest.

But with a little more than four months before the project's grant funding is set to expire at the end of August, local government leaders' fears and frustrations are rising, and many, including Capron, have little hope the project will be completed in the region.

So instead of waiting to see if Eagle-Net finishes the job, the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments wrote a letter to Colorado's congressional delegation proposing that federal legislators instead take Eagle-Net's assets and the grant money associated with this region and turn them over to the council of governments.

The council proposes combining Eagle-Net's infrastructure, existing fiber routes constructed by local Internet carriers and the congressional funds associated with this region to complete Southwest Colorado's portion of the statewide fiber-optic ring.

That scenario would involve partnering and leasing fiber optics from local carriers, which Eagle-Net so far has avoided in this region, said Bayfield Mayor Rick Smith, who manages another regional broadband Internet project, the Southwest Colorado Access Network, for the council of governments. That project is managing fiber-optic builds within local municipalities and hopes to connect into Eagle-Net's network.

The council, along with other rural council of governments across the state, sent another letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Monday requesting that in the future, similar grants related to broadband be put in the hands of regional governments instead of private entities.

That would alleviate situations such as the one facing local governments trying to work with Eagle-Net, Smith said.

The letter was a formal comment for the committee's Tuesday hearing about the state of rural communications.

Across the state, Eagle-Net has connected to only about 25 percent of the 220 educational institutions slated to be wired to the network, according to a report in The Denver Post. In February, the project came under intense scrutiny from state legislators who questioned its finances and effectiveness.

Though Eagle-Net's statewide map indicates its network connects Dove Creek, Cortez, Mancos, Dolores and Durango, Eagle-Net representatives acknowledged that Dove Creek, Cortez, Mancos and Dolores have yet to be connected to Eagle-Net's core ring of fiber, which stretches mainly along Tri-State Generation and Transmission-owned electric lines from Montrose to Durango.

In many cases, gaps totaling only a few miles are all that remain to complete the connection, but they could prove difficult to bridge before the August grant deadline. In one case, the conduit has yet to span the Dove Creek Canal, a 20-foot-wide canal that will be filled with water starting in May. After that, Eagle-Net construction will need special permission from the Bureau of Reclamation, which potentially could postpone the Dove Creek connection until late fall.

Neither Eagle-Net's regional liaison nor the public-information officer could specify exactly where Eagle-Net has fiber and conduit in the region and how far it needs to go to connect the region.

The project has committed about $90 million and has spent about $67 million of the $100.6 million in federal grant money it was awarded.

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