One lesson from the coronavirus pandemic for the town of Ignacio is that it needs to improve its broadband infrastructure – and in 2021, the town is taking steps to make that happen.
Broadband access has been a long-standing issue for residents both within and outside town limits. During the pandemic, adults and students spent more time accessing the internet from home for work or online schooling. The area’s broadband wasn’t up to the task, said Mark Garcia, Ignacio interim town manager.
“Staff, elected (officials), towns members, business members – there’s, I’d say, unanimous agreement that the service is less than desirable,” Garcia said.
Southwest Colorado communities, in general, have had limited access to broadband internet services. In 2010, the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments was awarded $3 million from the state’s Department of Local Affairs to implement a high-capacity network for the regional governments.
Through the Southwest Colorado Access Network, the Ignacio Town Hall, library, ELHI building and Ignacio School District buildings can access broadband internet through fiber optics, Garcia said.
Fiber-optic internet relies on transparent, flexible fiber made from glass or plastic to send data as fast as about 70% the speed of light, according to CenturyLink. Through fiber optics, broadband connection can reach speeds as fast as 940 Mbps.
In December 2019, the highest speeds provided by internet service providers in Ignacio reached 100 Mbps, according to Federal Communications Commission data.
Other than those locations, the fiber-optic infrastructure in Ignacio is limited, Garcia said.
The limited infrastructure also means, for example, that when a CenturyLink fiber-optic cable was cut in Denver, Ignacio’s service was impacted.
“There’s no redundancy. ... That’s another big piece to the broadband fiber-optics dilemma in our region,” Garcia said. “That’s all of our communities – Pagosa, Durango, Ignacio, the tribe. All of us are beholden to just one (fiber-optics) line in.”
In fall 2020, Ignacio began working with NEO Connect to develop a plan to extend the current fiber-optic infrastructure to homes and other premises in the town. The company is expected to complete its plan in January.
NEO Connect evaluated existing infrastructure, conduit in the ground, existing providers and the number of locations the town could serve by extending fiber. More than 200 locations could benefit from the extension project, Garcia said.
“It’s going to be a multiyear project. As much as we’d like to have the ability to flip the switch and have high-speed internet in town, it’s going to take a while,” he said.
The company estimated the extensions would cost between $2.5 million and $3 million.
The town’s next steps are to apply for grants and finalize a partnership agreement with an internet service provider.
The state’s High Cost Support Mechanism Grant could pay for up to 75% of the cost through a competitive grant program, according to the NEO Connect assessment.
The town is also looking into other funding options through the state of Colorado governor’s budget and federal programs.
“I’m really optimistic and excited to see it move forward,” Garcia said. “It’s finally coming to fruition. There’s a lot of federal money and state money ... for broadband funding. There’s definitely a need, more so now with COVID.”