On the Western Slope of Colorado, it seemed good internet was a luxury many couldn’t have.
Tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, the communities of the Western Slope depended on a few service providers, none of which offered reliable and fast internet. Frustrated, residents started voicing their concerns to officials—especially at meetings of the local electric co-op, Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA).
It came to a head in 2015 and the co-op knew it had to act. Thus, Elevate Fiber was born.
“Our service territory started an uprising,” said Kent Blackwell, chief technology officer for Elevate and DMEA. “They insisted the co-op get in and become a true internet service provider.”
Elevate Fiber was officially launched in 2016, and is a section of the co-op dedicated solely to fiber. To date, the organization has built out 16,000 meters of fiber and now serves 6,800 customers. Those with the service have download speeds from 100 megabits to 1 gigabit per second, and costs are as low as $50 a month.
“The community needed someone to solve this problem,” Blackwell said. “We needed to be that co-op in the community to pick up that torch and carry it forward.”
Before fiber internet was inside any of the homes in Delta and Montrose counties, Blackwell said they had at least a 67% precommitment rate for each of the service areas they were proposing to build. Part of that was thanks to the demand that inspired them to make the move in the first place; the other was a comprehensive marketing plan. It was a smart move, too, because they couldn’t afford to build out fiber networks without a take rate of at least 25%—which is what service providers typically see.
Their take rate hasn’t slowed down. There are more than 11,000 DMEA members across the entire system who have pre-registered for fiber internet when it becomes available in their area. Blackwell said they plan to offer the service to its 27,000-plus members in Delta and Montrose counties in the coming years. The only challenge in their way is finding funding to build out the rest of the network.
“We have to follow the resources and the timing of those resources,” he said. “Each and every grant program has its own set of obstacles. I’d love to say we could build out the rest of our network in five years, but it might be another 10.”
An Economic Win
For now, though, residents are seeing the benefits of high speed internet.
In an interview with KRCC—Southern Colorado’s NPR station—one resident sang the praises of his new high speed internet capabilities. Business owners in these rural towns of the Western Slope are able to grow their businesses in ways they never thought possible before.
Charles Rutledge, a hat maker from Paonia, Colo., commissions his creations for people across the country. Before, he and others in the community relied on seasonal tourism in the summer. Now, he has steady business year-round—using Skype to consult with customers on the design.
“The problem with Paonia is we have a few good months of tourism in the summer, but because we don't have a resort, we do not have much winter business,” he told the radio station. “It's very hard to survive here.”
Having fast, reliable internet opens up a lot of doors for areas like Paonia. Once a mining town, the new technological advances there could transform it for the better.
“There’s a growing dependency on the internet, and access to broadband in general,” Blackwell said. “We need to level the playing field. People need access to shopping resources, educational resources and technological resources. Rural areas have a deep desire and demand for all the various things I’ve listed off—things they can only get right now by getting in a vehicle and driving a distance. We want to bridge that divide.”
Blackwell said he hopes the success they’ve seen in the Western Slope inspires other co-ops to follow in their footsteps. Creating better fiber networks in rural areas will make communities everywhere stronger.
“It’s a very rewarding feeling knowing that you’re focused on doing better for your community, and that the community appreciates it,” he said. “It’s a tough job, too, and you can feel beat down at times. But then you have a little 80-year-old woman hug you for all it’s worth and say, ‘Thank you for bringing this to us.’”
Interested in learning more about what communities, utilities and legislators are doing with fiber in Colorado? Attend the Fiber Broadband Association’s Colorado Regional Conference on Nov. 5 in Fort Collins, CO.