Pitkin County puts brakes on high-speed Internet plan | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County puts brakes on high-speed Internet plan

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Extending high-speed Internet access into the rural parts of Pitkin County may not be a speedy process.

Pitkin County commissioners, with two members of the board absent, praised the idea Tuesday, but put the brakes on an ambitious plan to apply for $41 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds for the project by a March 2010 deadline. They were even less enthusiastic about a request for $251,500 in county money to finance a demonstration project that would connect at least 50 rural residents to a broadband network by March.

“We just don’t have that kind of dough,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley.

Alex Huppenthal, representing the Rural Broadband Internet Cooperative, appeared before commissioners to discuss the proposal. He has, he said, worked on various Internet service networks in the Roaring Fork Valley in the past decade. Of late, he has been meeting with neighborhood caucuses and developing a plan for high-speed Internet access in the outlying areas of the county.

The county has a population of roughly 15,000 people; perhaps 6,000 of them live in urban areas where high-speed Internet connections are readily available, according to Huppenthal. Some others are relying on satellite service or other arrangements to gain high-speed access.

The cooperative has used wireless technology to give some rural residents high-speed access as a demonstration, and has set up an online petition at http://tinyurl.com/roaringbroadband to seek support for the cooperative’s vision. Huppenthal requested the county funding for a broader demonstration, plus about 20 hours of county staff time per week through April 2010 to work on the complicated application for the $41 million in federal funds.

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“We’re scrambling to put together a very strong, robust application for that funding in Pitkin County,” he said. “This is a fairly large undertaking.”

The Recovery Act funds for broadband Internet construction disappear after next year, Huppenthal said.

The county’s Translator Advisory Board has discussed using the translator system – currently used to rebroadcast television and radio signals into the nooks and crannies of the mountainous county – to provide rural Internet service, according to Brad Manosevitz, the board’s chairman. With new translator facilities on Crown Mountain in the midvalley, the translator staff is seeking proposals from companies that can offer cellular and wireless services, Manosevitz said in a letter to commissioners.

Manosevitz, in the letter, said the translator board can’t support Huppenthal’s plan until it has a better understanding of what’s proposed, and he urged commissioners to direct the Rural Broadband Internet Cooperative to work with the translator board.

The translator system has seven mountain sites that could be part of the rural broadband system; about a half-dozen others would be needed, according to Huppenthal. A small antenna installed at a subscriber’s home would allow the high-speed wireless connection, he said.

Various Internet service providers could lease space on the system, competing for subscribers; the cooperative would not be the provider, Huppenthal stressed.

“We don’t want to become a Qwest. We don’t want to become Comcast,” he said, in reference to existing, urban service providers.

Huppenthal estimated there are 3,000 potential subscribers for the rural service. Internet fees of roughly $60 per month for a residential user and $100 per month for a business are envisioned.

With commissioners Rachel Richards and Patti Clapper absent, commissioners Owsley, George Newman and Jack Hatfield urged Huppenthal to work with the Translator Advisory Board. A recommendation from that group would be a good first step, Owsley said.

An application for the federal dollars by March may not be feasible, commissioners said, but a possible future tax question to expand the translator system to provide rural broadband service may be the answer. The translator system is already supported by its own tax levy.

Commissioners acknowledged the need for high-speed Internet connections in places like Redstone, south of Carbondale, and Meredith and Thomasville in the upper Fryingpan Valley.

“I live in a rural area,” said Newman, an Emma-area resident. “I’m very aware of the problems I’ve had accessing the Internet, TV and even radio.”

Glenn Horn, who resides on the back of Aspen Mountain, is among the area residents trying out one of Huppenthal’s demonstration wireless hookups. The Horn residence went from slow dial-up service to undependable satellite service, but the new wireless connection provides Internet service that’s comparable to what Horn enjoys at his office in town.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever had Internet that works,” Horn said.

janet@aspentimes.com