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Coronavirus Creates New Woes For Rural Colorado Residents Who Still Don't Have Broadband

Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
Crews work in July, 2019 to install new fiber to the town of Norwood. While the fiber has reached the public library, librarian Carrie Andrew says it has yet to reach some homes in the community.

In the tiny mountain town of Ophir in southwest Colorado, residents riding out the coronavirus pandemic at home are sending another round of thank you notes to Brian Morgan, who worked tirelessly to get the community connected to high-speed internet just two years ago.

"It has made a big impact for us because of so many facets, not just for the school or the job situation; it's also entertainment keeping everybody happy while they are being forced inside," he said last week. "It's incredibly, incredibly important."

He says the broadband service, which started beaming out from the top of a wooden utility pole high above town in 2018, is holding up even as the usage spikes in the community of less than two hundred people. And he says the broadband service is helping in ways he never even imagined it would.

Brian Morgan and town leaders in Ophir spent four years working to get high-speed internet connected before the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Credit Scott Franz / Capitol Coverage
Brian Morgan and town leaders in Ophir spent four years working to get high-speed internet connected before the coronavirus pandemic.

"I know there are people in the community are able to maintain their jobs remotely because we have good service now," he said. "From an online consultation for physical therapy to office administration to my kind of work. It seems like our (broadband) circuit is pegged from eight in the morning to 11 at night."

But as Morgan joins neighbors in virtual happy hours on Zoom and manages his IT business from the comfort of his home, he's thinking about the nearby communities that were not as lucky to get connected before the pandemic forced everyone inside.

What's the password?

Just 40 miles away in the small farming town of Norwood, many residents face a different reality. A broadband fiber project was just on the verge of reaching several homes in the community before the coronavirus arrived. Some residents are now having to walk or drive to the Lone Cone Library to access the building's free WiFi from the parking lot.

Library director Carrie Andrew said she's gotten so many texts from her neighbors asking for the library's WiFi password, her smartphone automatically pulls it up when she gets the messages.

"I know that some people on data plans have been coming to the library, using the parking lot to download music albums so they have something to listen to at home or to update their phones or even things like Facetime with kids," Andrew said. "I was just looking at our numbers between February and March, and our WiFi users were up even though our building was closed."

Andrew said a local broadband provider is working during the pandemic to improve the situation using wireless towers on top of the building.

Credit Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
Fiber is installed in a trench just outside the town of Norwood in July, 2019. Residents who are not yet connected to broadband are using free WiFi at their local library during the pandemic.

But even the library's high-speed broadband connection isn't stable enough for everyone, including a mother who recently helped her daughter file a college assignment online.

"One day she came to the library so her daughter could upload a four-minute video. It took an hour and it didn't upload because we didn't know it, but we needed to update our WiFi," Andrew said. "So they ended up having to drive (66 miles) to Montrose to the lady's place of work the next day just to have good enough internet to upload this video for her daughter's college class."

Holding down the fort

Other residents in San Miguel County are enduring the pandemic without reliable high-speed internet connections at home.

Rico town manager Kari Distefano drives 25 miles over Lizard Head Pass from her home just outside of Telluride to the town hall in Rico.

"I can't work from home, it's just too frustrating," Distefano said. "Now that so much of our business is being done over the phone or on Zoom, it just makes it doubly hard right now. … Coming into work is an absolute necessity."

Distefano says there are other reasons besides a spotty DSL connection at home that force her to make the long drive to work during the pandemic.

She serves as the backup water systems operator in the small town of about 230 people.

"Our staff is so small, it's important that somebody holds down the fort so to speak," she said.

Like in Norwood, the library in Rico is letting students who don't have an internet connection at home utilize the building's free broadband connection. And some of the schools in southwest Colorado sent students home with mobile hotspots to use in place of high-speed connections.

Distefano said even though high-speed internet is available in Rico, it's too expensive for some.

Ramping up service

Meanwhile in the city of Montrose, internet traffic on a relatively new broadband service called Elevate is spiking. The company is working to make sure residents have enough speed to endure the stay-at-home orders.

"The first thing we did when we realized everyone would be working out of their house is we kept everyone's price structure the same, and we took every residential subscribers speed up to one gigabit per second," said Mark Kurtz, the senior business project manager for Elevate. "We didn't want our subscribers to see any degradation in service based on the fact their entire family was home."

He said Elevate is also offering free installation and two months of complimentary broadband service to new subscribers who need it for essential services, such as education and telehealth.

Credit Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
Elevate network engineer Dakota Cole looks at a panel inside a broadband facility in Montrose in July, 2019.

About 200 people have taken advantage of the service so far, Kurtz said.

But getting them all connected hasn’t been easy.

“It requires us to go in and out of people’s homes to do this,” he said. “There’s had to be a lot of training involved to still be able to be in someone’s home and still be able to social distance and install that service … We’d love to be out there getting in as many in as we could every single day, but in this new environment, that has slowed down the process.”

But Kurtz thinks the coronavirus pandemic will have at least one good side effect when it’s over.

“It looks like there’s going to be tremendously much more money available in grant programs in the next 18 months that could very well help us finish our networks out to our most far-reaching customers,” he said. “If there’s something good that comes out of this, it may be that it sort of has made people at the federal level believe that we really do need broadband in these areas and that (they) really are going to have to help us fund that if we’re going to be better in a situation like this in the future.”

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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