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Broadband On The Rural Plains Draws Republican Scrutiny

Steven Damron
Creative Commons

An ambitious plan to connect a high-speed broadband network across Colorado is coming under fire by Republicans who say the federal government is wasting millions of dollars in stimulus money.

The story dates back to September 2010 when EAGLE-Net, a quasi-governmental agency, received more than $100 million to build a comprehensive statewide network to connect 234 so-called anchor institutions to high speed Internet—places like schools, universities and libraries. Flash forward to the fall of 2012, when 4th Congressional District Congressman Cory Gardner started hearing complaints from rural telecommunications companies.

“…saying hey, look, we’ve put fiber into the ground to a number of communities and schools and this EAGLE-Net company, which got a stimulus grant, has just come in and laid fiber next to the fiber that we just put into the ground.”

Gardner says local companies felt like EAGLE-Net was competing with their existing business. That led him to question their mission in a September 17 2012 letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

“I wonder why EAGLE-Net spent all this time duplicating services on Eastern Plains where it’s easy to build instead of focusing on harder to reach areas like Silverton or Ouray?”

Silverton in particular has no broadband connections, and currently is using microwave towers.

Ultimately in December of last year the NTIA asked EAGLE-Net to suspend construction, citing changes made to its original plan and lack of environmental and historical preservation reviews.

Gretchen Dirks, a spokeswoman for EAGLE-Net, says the mission of her organization from the get-go was to build a network of connections across the state to schools and libraries, which naturally translates into redundancies.

“Every opportunity we have to use existing infrastructure we make every attempt to do so,” she said.

Earlier this week, EAGLE-Net’s president, Michael Ryan, met with the head of the NTIA and Representative Gardner to hash out a plan forward.

In terms of the suspension, spokesperson Dirks says EAGLE-Net is working closely with the NTIA to get up and running again.

“We’re working hand-and-hand with them every day to answer their questions and get this listed as quickly as possible in terms of the environmental assessment,” she said.

Dirks said she expects the project to be back in commission in the next 60 days. And the clock is ticking. EAGLE-Net has until the end of August this year to spend all of its stimulus funds.

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