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PitCo’s broadband initiative coming online slowly, surely

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Residents of Redstone, the Crystal Valley, Old Snowmass and Missouri Heights can rejoice, as a multiyear project aiming to bring broadband internet and a potpourri of other communications services to the more boondock parts of the Roaring Fork Valley arrived at their doorstep in July.

While the Pitkin County Broadband Initiative was actually conceived in 2011, construction commenced in 2015, according to Kara Silbernagel, policy and projects manager for the Pitkin County government.

“Pitkin County has been working on a broadband initiative to reach the unserved and ­underserved rural areas of the county, consisting to a large extent of the drainages off Highway 82, where fiber-optic cable does not go,” said Silbernagel, who has worked for the county for more than five years. “The infrastructure costs to get fiber to those drainages has been unrealistic. So we’ve been working on a fixed, wireless broadband solution to the rural areas of the county.

“When we started making upgrades to the public safety radio system in 2015-16, we recognized we could leverage that same infrastructure and find economies of scale if we also then looked at broadband,” she continued.

According to Silbernagel, the issue has implications that transcend the ability of rural residents to watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reruns in high-definition. There have long been issues with public safety.

All told the new system will encompass seven new towers. Thus far, four are up and running, with two more slated to go online later in the summer. The last tower will be built next summer.

Heretofore, the public safety system was decidedly archaic, causing issues with EMS personnel being unable to communicate from isolated locales.

“Before these upgrades, EMS personnel were operating on an analog system,” Silbernagel said. “We were one of few counties in the state that never transitioned to a digital system. When this project is complete, all agencies will all be able to talk to each other much more easily. They won’t have to switch channels as they move through the county.”

The project has been funded by an $890,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), which was matched in late 2016 by the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners. The last stages of the project will be funded by a $700,000 from DOLA that will, once again, be matched by the PitCo BOCC.

“The idea is to establish a high-capacity, fully redundant microwave backhaul loop,” Silbernagel said shortly after the first DOLA grant was announced in 2016. “This loop will be self-correcting in the event of failure and will have the ability to compensate if a failure occurs. There will be line-of-sight forming a loop from towers located at Sunlight, Williams, Loge, North 40, Ajax and Crown. If one of those towers goes down, there will still be line of sight from, say, Williams to Crown.”

Basically, in times past, if one component of the system failed, the entire system might very well go down, affecting everything from television to home-security systems to emergency calls in the more remote parts of the valley.

It has not just been a matter of constructing new towers. The necessary infrastructure work, according to Silbernagel, has included new shelters, all new electrical equipment and a microwave system.

Add to that the fact that these facilities are not being constructed in downtown Aspen. They are located on remote mountaintops, which presents accessibility challenges.

“Last year, much of the microwave system was up and running,” she said. “We were able to finish that part this spring. On July 1, we were able to go live with broadband from three of the towers.”

The new Elephant Mountain tower serves the Crystal River and Redstone, the new Williams tower services Old Snowmass and the new Crown tower services the midvalley and Missouri Heights area.”

Silbernagel stressed that broadband services are not being provided directly by Pitkin County.

“The main effort of the county is not to be a broadband provider,” she said. “We have recognized since 2011 when this started that the barriers to entry to bring local internet providers into those remote areas was just too high. The cost of adding new towers on these mountaintops, all of that is too expensive. It’s also too expensive to run fiber-optic cable into those areas.

“So Pitkin County created what we call the ‘middle mile,’ similar to the highway in road language,” she continued. “We’re just bringing the road, which allows the internet providers to get to the houses. This reduced the barriers to the cost of entry. We are working with two internet service providers, who are able to offer a package of various speeds which are now meeting or exceeding the FTC definition of broadband.”

Those two companies are Pathfinders and Visionary Broadband.

So, basically, PitCo is providing the towers, which then provide the opportunity for internet providers to purvey their services to residents of drainages not served by fiber-optic cable.

In return, a portion of the revenue generated by those internet providers will come back to the county to pay for access to the equipment.

“We’ve invested around $400,000 in access equipment,” Silbernagel said. “The idea is that future access to the equipment and towers and the maintenance and operation of the equipment can be supported through revenue share-back.”

Costs for the maintenance of the towers and associated equipment will also be shared across Pitkin County’s Translator Fund, which will help cover maintenance for both the towers and infrastructure necessary for public safety, TV access and broadband.

“When the opportunity arises, we could leverage multiple funding sources rather than just building the tower only for broadband,” Silbernagel said.

Local EMS providers are stoked.

“Having expanded internet and connectivity has several benefits to first responders,” said Scott Thompson, fire chief of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue. “First is safety. During wildland fires, one of our first priorities is the weather, which is constantly monitored while engaging the fire. Having the connectivity gives us the advantage in a much larger area. The other option is having weather relayed by voice radio, this can of course add a layer of human error and or delay. Having connectivity gives us advantages and speeds the process when ordering airplanes and helicopters during wildland fires and medical evacuations.”

“The broadband initiative has greatly improved our land mobile radio system,” he continued. “We had a very old, pieced-together analog public safety radio system. The worst part of the analog system is no redundancy. A single malfunction or failure could bring down our entire system. The new system, a ­digital trunk radio (DTR) system, adds redundancy with improved sites and power backup generators. The vastly improved microwave system is being shared with broadband, an advantage to both systems.

“We have also experienced added coverage with our radios and much better voice quality. This is very important for our medical staff as they can communicate directly with physicians at Aspen Valley and Valley View Hospitals, which can greatly improve patient outcomes. A very positive takeaway from the Lake Christine Fire was the DTR system was flawless, provided communications with all agencies and had the depth of additional channels as needed. The new radio system certainly benefited the entire valley during the fire and led us to being successful.”

The next two towers to go up this summer will be on Jackrabbit Ridge above Snowmass Village and above Ruedi Reservoir.

“The one above Ruedi will not able to provide a lot of direct service, but is necessary to serve Thomasville,” Silbernagel said. “That one is also an essential public radio site because a lack of public safety communication basically from the minute you leave Basalt heading up the Fryingpan.”

Shortly after the first DOLA grant was announced in 2016, Phylis Mattice, assistant PitCo county manager, said, “This is important on almost every level. It will help meet the education needs of our children. Right now, school kids up the Fryingpan do not have access to broadband. Medical facilities are relying more and more on broadband. There are very definite public-safety issues. We have real estate people in the valley asking us when we’re going to get broadband up certain drainages because they have properties listed for millions of dollars that do not have access to broadband, which means people can’t take advantage of many high-tech home-security systems. This is not just a matter of government doing something advantageous for the private sector. This is something we need on many levels.”

That need is finally being met.