- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

SILVERTON, Colo. (AP) - Pete McKay was downloading a song Oct. 9 at his home in Silverton. The little wheel on his screen kept turning.

“Still waiting,” he said after several minutes of buffering.

After 20 years of dreaming, 15 years of work, yearly setbacks and countless wasted minutes staring at screens, last-century buffering is ending in Silverton.

This month, the peak-hemmed hamlet became the last county seat in Colorado to be wired for high-speed, fiber-optic broadband Internet.

It has been a long haul for Silverton - population 639 and the only town in remote San Juan County.

“How is it that we lost every single battle for 15 years and still won the war?” said McKay, a 20-year resident and a county commissioner for 14 years.

He answered his question with a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

Over the past two decades, many politicians promised that high-speed Internet was coming to this island in the jagged sea of the San Juan Mountains. Utility companies affirmed the pact. Federal stimulus dollars dwindled. When the 2010 deadline for a statewide plan to wire every county passed, Silverton stood alone in the dial-up desert.

The digital divide has lingered long in Silverton, where a microwave radio relay system ferried Internet and phone calls from the outside world. A fiber-optic cable stopped 16 miles south of town, on the wrong side of the precipitous Coal Bank Pass.

Credit card transactions at the height of summer tourism season clogged the relay operation, which meant businesses, such as Venture Snowboards, couldn’t connect with customers and suppliers. Phone calls dropped.

On the busy Fourth of July holiday this year, access to the world beyond the hills evaporated. No one could use credit cards or even make phone calls. The digital deadlock dropped Silverton back to its covered-wagon roots.

“It felt like we were living in the 20th century - and that’s no way to live in today’s world. We might as well go back to using the telegraph,” said town trustee Karla Safranski, a Silverton local for 38 years. She and her husband have owned the ZE Supply hardware store since 1990.

“We’ve always been isolated by mountain passes. Getting supplies here over the highway has always been a challenge,” she said. “This information highway is incredibly important to us for business development and quality-of-life issues.”

Colorado’s Multi-User Network for Telecommunications Project in 2000 aimed at wiring every county seat in the state with fiber-optic Internet.

Qwest Communications got $37 million of taxpayer dollars to get it done.

Citing right-of-way struggles, the utility delayed installing the final 16-mile stretch of cable between Durango and Silverton. Microwave towers erected in 2005 relayed Internet and phone links, a small upgrade from the single radio link that had kept Silverton connected to the outside world for a half century.

While the microwave relay system was supposed to be temporary, Qwest soon argued the relay towers provided sufficient service.

“Qwest was paid to build an information superhighway to Silverton and they barely widened the existing mule trail,” county administrator Willie Tookey said in a 2010 statement announcing the county and town’s formal complaint against Qwest .

Silverton’s citizens galvanized, forming Operation Link Up, aiming to bridge the town’s digital divide.

In 2012, four years after the Silverton School’s coal-powered boiler died, an $11.8 million renovation upgraded the 64-student school. The enhancements included wiring the classrooms for high-speed Internet that still wasn’t there.

A year later, EAGLE-Net stepped in with a plan to finish the fiber-optic connection from Coal Bank Pass into Silverton.

This time, it was part of the federally funded $100.6 million EAGLE-Net Alliance push to wire the state’s 168 school districts. Once again, funds dwindled as remote schoolhouses in Silverton, Creede, Naturita and Nucla remained dependent on fickle signals.

Silverton residents held a chili cook-off to raise money, but the town remained the last enclave in Colorado without broadband Internet.

In August, EAGLE-Net and Internet provider Affiniti deployed helicopters to string fiber-optic cable along utility power lines.

High-speed Internet still hasn’t arrived at the schoolhouse - but it’s in town. The school will be lit first, hopefully within weeks. Then the public town and county buildings. Entrepreneurs are lining up to wire businesses and homes.

In a ceremonial plug-in ceremony Oct. 9 at the Silverton School, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, applauded regional and federal efforts to wire rural corners of the country.

In a statement, Tipton urged the Federal Communications Commission to launch the second phase of the Connect America Fund, saying that “a community without broadband risks being left behind in today’s technology-driven economy.”

With the Internet finally flowing into Silverton, residents and officials are hoping the mountain valley’s appeal will grow among the increasing number of location-neutral businesses and entrepreneurs who can live anywhere with a hard-wired laptop.

“Without fiber, there is no way those people could ever consider Silverton,” said Lisa Branner, whose Venture Snowboards makes top-ranked custom-crafted boards. “We need to bring more businesses and more families into town, and this connection is huge for our ability to draw those people. We have the mountains, the small town, the awesome environment. Now we have a way for people to connect with their jobs.”

McKay says the connection will bolster not just his town but the Western Slope. Suddenly, an entire region is elevated for entrepreneurs drawn to the Rocky Mountains.

Businesses are already looking, he said.

Silverton is pitching itself to data-storage outfits, McKay said. There is a local hydropower plant that serves as a backup should the grid fail. An array of abandoned mine tunnels could be used for storage, with ample water to cool computer systems.

“Companies are always looking for remote, secure locations to store data. Silverton is their place,” McKay said. “Silverton, and really the entire Western Slope, finally has a competitive advantage.”

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Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com


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