Archuleta County faces vulnerabilities amidst broadband issues

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    By Joe Napolitan
    Staff Writer

    The Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (CDC) and members of the local community have been expressing concerns about the vulnerability of Archuleta County’s broadband network. 

    During a work session on Wednesday, May 19, CDC Executive Director Robert Clark introduced frustrations that a member of the organization shared with him.

    “I view him as a fairly prominent business owner in town,” Clark said during the session. “His No. 1 issue for him in business is … finding qualified job candidates. After that, it is affordable housing, and his third issue is quality Internet service.”

    Clark mentioned that he had spent the earlier part of his week meeting and talking with a handful of CDC members. He asked the members a handful of questions in an attempt to find patterns amongst them.

    “The interesting thing about that last mention is, he’s in a business where his client base requires quality Internet service and he’s in the business of supporting them in this capacity,” Clark said. “He’s frustrated by all three of those things and he called out some of the ISPs by name to say that at one point he thought they were pretty high quality and now he feels like the quality has deteriorated.”

    Bringing up an example of another person in town frustrated about losing Internet service in recent weeks, Clark mentioned how they, along with others, have or are beginning to sign up for Starlink Internet service.

    Starlink, according to its website, offers high-speed, low-latency broadband Internet using satellites 60 times closer to earth than traditional satellites. The service is ideal for remote and rural communities and with its current beta testing “users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.”

    During the annual CDC meeting on Wednesday, May 12, Archuleta County Broadband Services Management Office (BSMO) Communications Manager Jason Cox explained that finding other solutions to broadband issues is imperative due to Starlink not being wholly reliable.

    “Starlink gives us variety and choice and allows us to get to areas that we otherwise would not,” Cox said. “We would depend 100 percent on Starlink if it was going to be here tomorrow and if we thought it was going to have all the feature capacity it needed, but it won’t because its technology will probably max it out at 130 megabytes per second, which is great but also not fail proof.”

    Cox went on to stress the importance of a long-term and self-sustaining network, stating that redundancy is a huge priority. 

    He explained that the county is vulnerable in the modern world without sufficient broadband, as many companies have acknowledged that they could send their staff to work remotely to decrease office space and traffic on urban highways while increasing employee satisfaction for virtually no cost.

    “We’re going to see more and more opportunities in Archuleta in particular for people to relocate or exist here because they can, and that includes not just individuals, but entire companies, so we want to make sure we’re ready for that opportunity,” Cox said.

    Emerging data supports this statement. A Gartner Inc. survey of 127 company leaders representing HR, legal and compliance, finance and real estate revealed 82 percent of respondents intend to permit remote working at least some of the time as employees return to the workplace. Another survey conducted by FlexJobs of over 4,000 people who worked remotely during the pandemic found that 95 percent believed their productivity stayed the same or increased, and that 65 percent of respondents want to become full-time remote employees after the pandemic ends.

    “Right now we have one backfall route and we know what happens when it gets cut,” Cox continued, referring to the area’s fiber network. “Two weeks ago, we had one single cut, one single point of failure with one single piece of equipment that took us down for nine hours and affected cellular networks, your ability to get a dial tone, to call 911. It affected Internet service for all providers except Visionary.”

    He added that Visionary managed to stay connected using the Oakbrush Tower, a wireless, 1 GBps microwave upgrade that was installed in November of 2020. 

    According to the BSMO annual update, the tower was funded using a portion of a $466,000 grant received from the Colorado Broadband Fund in December 2019 that was “aimed at last mile projects in Archuleta County to hook up potentially 3,000 addresses at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadband standard.”

    Cox mentioned that the link is “small” and due to a lot of traffic in instances of fiber cuts, it becomes saturated and slow.

    “The point is we don’t have redundancy and this is a very, very large vulnerability and we’re going to fix that,” Cox said.

    Solutions

    The BSMO has had several major accomplishments since its inception in 2019, according to its annual update:

    • It has connected over 20 business customers to the Southwest Colorado Access Network (SCAN), a high-speed 1 gigabits-per-second fiber line that runs from Pagosa Springs Medical Center downtown to the Pagosa Springs Town Hall and east out to the county’s Colorado State University Extension building. 

    • It also brought high-speed broadband to around 700 homes in Aspen Springs.

    • It constructed the Road and Bridge tower, allowing cell service and emergency operations communications on U.S 84 and in the county fairgrounds. 

    • The annual update also lists its goals moving forward beyond 2021: create a core municipal fiber network that would support service to up to 80 percent of businesses and residents of Archuleta County with fiber-based service; extend high-speed infrastructure for last-mile service to underserved neighborhoods in the county; and help with planning for a Wolf Creek Pass fiber build, a critical fiber route that will greatly increase capacity, reliability, and add redundancy.