Cortez a fiber optics leader for the state and region?

City was laying the groundwork in 1999

At the turn of the 21st Century, the local economy was handcuffed by limited digital communication capabilities.

“Cortez was on the verge of dying before it opted to take destiny into its own hands,” said City of Cortez general services director Rick Smith.

Starting in 1999, municipal leaders launched efforts to install fiber optic cables to its anchor institutions, such as government buildings, schools and hospital. Today, additional fiber optic cables are being fitted along Main Street, delivering extra bandwidth to more than 200 businesses.

“Just because we live here in rural Cortez, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have access to affordable broadband like they do in metro areas such as Denver,” Smith said. “It’s a necessity in today’s digital age.”

That forward-thinking insight has positioned Cortez as a broadband leader across both the state and region, Smith said. He fields calls from cities and towns from all around asking how the city is implementing its digital infrastructure.

Long, thin strands of pure glass arranged in bundles called fiber optics, the cables transmit communications via light signals over long distances. Compared to conventional copper wire, optical fibers are cheaper and more efficient; transmit vaster, clearer digital communications without loss of signal; and are also safer, lighter and smaller.

“Installing fiber optics is all about enhancing economic development,” said Smith.

Prior to fiber optic accessibility, the Unlimited Learning Center, for example, had 10 megabits of Internet capacity at a cost of $1,200 per month. Today, the educational outreach complex receives 50 megabits of data at half the monthly price.

“Prior to our fiber optics, we only had a handful of distance learning courses,” said executive director Ann Miller. “Now we have almost 45 courses.”

In addition to increased course offerings, Miller explained the added bandwidth has also improved security, quality and reliability of services.

“When we had cable, our broadcasts were routinely interrupted,” she said. “We don’t have any hitches today.”

From a government perspective, fiber optics has also modernized the city’s judicial system. Now able to operate a video arraignment system for inmates, fiber optic cables have helped improved public safety, according to city attorney Mike Green.

“Since officers don’t have to guard and transport inmates, we’ve been able to put more policemen on the streets,” Green said.

“The effort has also saved inmate transportation costs and increased convenience for court officials,” he continued. “Fiber optics has been a huge benefit for municipal court operations.”

The SW Colorado Council of Governments has played a major role in enhancing the city’s broadband capabilities. The organization recently announced it’s completing a three-year $4 million project to construct the Southwest Colorado Access Network (SCAN). The city received $1 million of the grant funding to install the fiber optic cables along Main Street.

“The infrastructure improvements not only offer businesses higher bandwidth capacity at lower costs, but they also lower the cost barriers for private telecom companies to enter into the market,” said Region 9 Economic Development District executive director Ed Morlan.

The SCAN project is improving fiber optics across Montezuma County, including government buildings in Dove Creek, Dolores and Mancos. Archuleta, Dolores, LaPlata and San Juan counties are also benefiting, Morlan added.

Looking forward, the city anticipates expanding its digital framework even more. In fiscal year 2014, Smith is hopeful to secure an additional $1 million grant the city would match for a total of $2 million. Those funds would then be used to complete the next phase of installation to connect businesses along Broadway with fiber optic capabilities. The final piece of the puzzle is expanding the network into residential areas.

“It would probably take more than $10 million to finish out the entire city,” Smith predicted. “That could take at least five years, but we have a roadmap. We have a plan.”