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Grant awarded for broadband Internet project

The Town of Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County should be one large “hot spot” by the end of this year, due to a grant awarded to the Southwest Council of Governments (SWCOG) for the purposes of expanding broadband Internet in the Four Corners area.

Last week, Gov. Bill Ritter announced the award of the grant, a portion of a $17 million pot allocated to “energy impacted areas” and funded from federal oil and gas lease revenues. Amounting to $3 million to the SWCOG — slightly less than the $3,220,375 originally requested — the town and county’s cut is currently $648,805 for broadband expansion.

With $216,268 in local matching funds (necessary for securing the town and county’s participation in the grant), $865,073 amounts to total project funding. However, according to Region 9 Economic Development District Assistant Director Laura Lewis-Marchino, $7.2 billion in federal stimulus money designated for rural broadband expansion could further supplement the SWCOG’s available funding.

“We are looking at possibly taking advantage of that program for further matches and funding.”

Presenting information on the project at a Town Council meeting last November, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem said the project would, “Establish all of Pagosa Springs as a hot spot so that you could sit by the river with your computer and do your business,” adding, “CenturyTel has done this in Vail with great success.”

In December, town council approved a $134,750 budget line item for its portion in matching funds for the grant. However, at the Feb. 2 council meeting, Mitchem reported that staff was considering pursuing federal stimulus dollars to supplement some or all its match funding.

While the county has yet to fully commit to its portion of matching funds for the grant, the BoCC voted in late January to demonstrating intent to provide its portion of the match — $81,518 if the town pays the entire portion budgeted in 2010.

“There are certain elements of our application that makes it difficult to parcel out our funding,” said Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte.

“Because of the shortfall,” he added, “we’re not sure exactly how much our portion of the grant will be.”

Mitchem concurred that some details need to be hammered out between various participants in the SWCOG in order to determine how the funding shortfall would be addressed, adding that he thought ironing out those details was a relatively minor matter.

“It’s been a unifying and cordial relationship with the various municipalities and counties,” he said.

Early last year, both town and county decided to join SWCOG to provide an additional funding mechanism. Composed of counties and municipalities from the Four Corners area, the SWCOG was formed to gain access to state and federal funding, especially for projects that include multiple jurisdictions. As explained by Lewis-Marchino, last year at a joint meeting with the town and county, more and more federal and state funding opportunities are being awarded to COGs rather than individual municipalities.

Having agreed to participate in the SWCOG, the town and county signed on with other participants to apply for a Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure grant through the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) last July.

Once the SWCOG determines how to address the funding shortfall in the grant award, the town and county will still need to enter into a contract with DOLA for administration of the grant. While terms of the grant allow for a three-year phased development, Mitchem said that he prefers the town and county move forward with the project and complete it this year.

“We’re interested in doing this and getting this done as soon as possible,” he said.

The rationale for the grant is to connect all government entities with fiber optic lines, getting all governmental entities communicating with high-speed digital connections. Thus, not only would town and county offices be linked by the fiber optic network, but it would also include the school district, fire district and PAWSD, as well as the airport.

However, the project would include the construction of over a dozen Wi-Fi towers that would essentially put the entire town of Pagosa Springs, and some parts of the county, under the umbrella of high-speed wireless Internet connectivity.

While the town and county currently have some fiber optic lines, that infrastructure is owned by CenturyLink (formerly CenturyTel) and, while the town would own fiber optic lines added in through the DOLA grant, CenturyLink would still control Internet access throughout the network. As such, the town would not be able to run the network as an enterprise.

With the funding secured and some minor details to work out, Mitchem stated that he’s confident construction could begin this summer, with a projected completion by this fall. Additionally, he said, the town would like the project done in a timely fashion, “to make Archuleta County and the Town of Pagosa Springs more competitive for economic development. We’d like to get this done this year.”