Fiber under fire

County officials justify $1.2 million telecommunication expenditure

The Moffat County Commissioners have come under the scrutiny of county residents for spending $1.2 million taxpayer dollars to bring high speed telecommunications to Northwest Colorado.

With the completion of a fiber optic line between Rifle and Craig slated for June, the debate over what officials spent to bring fiber optics to Moffat County is getting heated.

Moffat County contracted with a private provider (NC Telecom) to purchase fiber optic capacity from Rifle to Craig a contract that was necessary if Moffat County was to to win the state patrol regional dispatch center bid. But, it was the spending of an additional $700,000 for pre-paid services from NC Telecom for a second DS3 line that some locals believe was a frivolous and irresponsible expenditure by the commissioners. And the commissioners don't yet have an answer as to how the increased bandwidth is going to be divvied up or used by governmental agencies.

"This is probably one of the worst investments in the world," said resident Jeff Taylor, a former electrical engineer and political activist. "They bought an option for $700,000 that is useless to the taxpayer. They might consume it eventually, but it's a throw away because Qwest (formerly US West) already has the fiber here and they don't need that kind of capacity. The commissioners signed a contract with NC Telecom to induce the construction of the fiber from Rifle to Craig but they didn't have to because the fiber is already here."

The Moffat County Commissioners needed to have a highly technical DS3 fiber optic line running line Interstate 70 to Craig to win the state patrol call center bid, Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said. At the time the commissioners awarded the fiber bid to NC Telecom and purchased 10 years of pre-paid services, US West (now Qwest) did not have DS3 fiber running along Colorado Highway 13 and the available fiber didn't have enough capacity to serve the area.

"We recognize that we may not need this fiber today, but from everything we've heard, we do not have the capacity within the area to get the needed T1 lines that people are asking for," Raftopoulos said. "We have been a black hole of telecommunication and will continue to be without this."

The commissioners' intent when purchasing pre-paid services for the second line was to improve not only technology in the valley, but also to bring better county services to taxpayers. In addition, Moffat County was awarded a $600,000 Energy Impact Grant from the Department of Local Affairs to help pay for the advanced telecommunications, Raftopoulos said.

"$500,000 in pre-paid services is for the call center DS3 line for 10 years and $700,000 in pre-paid services was for the second DS3 line for the county. The total cost to taxpayers in the end was $600,000 because of the Energy Impact Grant," she said. "The reason the second line was more expensive than the first is because it will be used by more than one organization where the first line is specifically dedicated to the highway patrol. We did try to negotiate the price of the second line down. We were trying to do something good for the people of this county and if we did something wrong, I'd like to know about it."

Audrey Danner, executive director for Moffat County Partners, has been involved in the entire telecommunications project from start to finish a project that has taken nearly four years to complete. She said the goal of the commissioners was to increase the telecommunications capacity and infrastructure in the region. In reaching that goal, Moffat County was not only awarded the Energy Impact Bid, but also was part of a three-county Beanpole Grant of $1.375 million to offset additional telecommunication costs to Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.

"Think of the second line as additional capacity. It's for the use of local government at a reduced rate. Their (NC Telecom) prices will be 10 percent lower than Qwest," Danner said. "We have the opportunity to use it for whatever we need it for. Pre-paid services is like a calling card. The fact that US West or Qwest has more fiber lines available now shows how the state aggregated their demand to give the incentive to private providers to come to the region. This whole process has brought the fiber price down and made more fiber lines available."

Qwest spokesperson Skip Therman said he could not comment on the fiber optic situation because was not with the company during the entire project.

The executives who could comment were unavailable.

The county's second DS3 line has not yet been divvied up between the different county agencies and Danner said at this point, the commissioners are not sure which agencies will need the fiber capacity and to what extent. She said that this uncertainty does not change her belief that the commissioners' made a sound decision on purchasing the second DS3 line.

"For example, if the Sheriff's Department wanted video conferencing, it would be available to them. The option to use it for the library is there as well. The library usually wants greater capacity because of all the public access computers. Additionally, if the schools or hospitals have a special function, they may need use of the line," Danner said.

Although the plan for specific use of the $700,000 pre-paid services has not yet been mapped out, the commissioners know there is a need for high speed in the area, Danner added.

"It's not in the ground and ready to use at this moment, but technology and our capacity uses are growing exponentially," she said. "The city and county are working on additional ways to use capacity to improve productivity of their departments. Everyone is looking at a way to work more efficiently and effectively and use this capacity more effectively."

Taylor isn't buying the commissioners' explanation for the added $700,000 price tag.

"The one thing that is most distressing is I can't see, after all the tax dollars have been spent on a pre-paid services, there is no discount or guarantee of any type of service to area residents," he said. "This was initially promoted as everybody will get something. If the commissioners can't put that in writing and say what residents will get, then there's no basis for spending the money. I see no use for long distance broadband what so ever. The county agencies have nothing that requires communication outside the courthouse."

Former County Commissioner Joe Janosec was the one Moffat County Commissioner who voted for the US West $564,000 single DS3 line bid as opposed to the $1.2 million two DS3 line NC Telecom bid.

"I felt that US West was in the business of communications and this was their business," he said. "It also had to do with finances. That was by far the best financial choice, and a smart way to spend the taxpayer money."

But, Raftopoulos said that the US West bid was for one DS3 line to Craig for the state patrol call center and that it was her goal to bring two DS3 lines to Craig for improved technology and governmental services. She said that is why she and Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson chose to go with NC Telecom, because they could enter into a contract for two DS3 lines verses one.

Taylor said that the trend in the communications business is for goods and services to decrease in cost over time.

"If the commissioners would have held off and not entered into a ten year contract but instead an annual contract with NC Telecom, they may have been able to secure fiber technology for a fraction of the price. My biggest beef though, is that the county didn't need this fiber other than government perpetuating government," Taylor said. "You can buy high speed cafeteria style buy on a year contract and each agency can pay its own way. And, most likely, each year it gets less and less expensive."

The county plans to make the fiber access available to county agencies at no charge to those agencies until all of the pre-paid services money is depleted. No one knows exactly when that will be.

"Our goal is that governmental agencies that need this technology will be able to work the expense into their budgets in the future," Raftopoulos said. "Businesses and local government will eventually be able to sustain the technology because throughout the next 10 years, the cost of the fiber capacity will decrease due to competition in the region."

Despite the ridicule from Taylor and others in the community, Raftopoulos and Danner both believe that the group made a good call when they wrote the $700,000 check to NC Telecom.

"Knowing technology was changing before our very eyes and knowing this region was behind that technology when we started this project, everyone was extremely careful and thoughtful about making the decision to spend the money," Danner said. "We have documented governmental agencies that could be more efficient with broadband. We surveyed businesses, chambers and governmental agencies and many people were asking for this technology. Many people were on waiting lists for this technology. We spent the time educating ourselves about telecom. And, although I may not be as educated or knowledgeable about it as Jeff Taylor, I can make an educated decision. I believe we made a thoughtful and educated decision but it was bigger than any one of us."

Taylor said that if the county was planning to spend the additional $700,000 it may have been able to find a wiser long-term solution to low cost fiber optic capacity.

"The money could have been spent to entice a digital sub line provider to come here and make this technology more affordable to the taxpayers. Now, that would have been a better expenditure," he said.

Despite Taylor's arguments against the purchase of the second DS3 line, Danner said that area taxpayers will benefit from the additional line because of improved county services.

"We wanted to leverage taxpayer dollars to enhance the telecommunications capacity and infrastructure in our region," Danner said.

Taylor doesn't entirely disagree with what the commissioners were trying to do when they entered into the arena of bringing high speed services to Moffat County residents. He said he only wished that they would have done it at half the price and then had a product they could then in turn offer to area residents and business owners.

"I don't tout myself as a communications expert I'm just a concerned citizen. I don't wish ill of the commissioners. But, I would like to see a list of services that NC Telecom will provide and the cost of those services so businesses can plan for the future and know should they go with service from NC Telecom or Qwest," he said. "That would tell us what we bought for $700,000. If it was such a great deal, I want to know what we are getting in the end. The bottom line the opportunity is intangible, the commissioners can be faulted because what we bought is not tangible. Taxpayers have nothing to show for it."

NC Telecom general manager Dennie Mecham said that although the fiber project is a few months behind, his crew is back working on laying the fiber up Colorado Highway 13 and the group plans to meet a June 1, 2001, project deadline.

"We got behind because of the weather," he said. "It has gone pretty smooth except timing the weather."

Mecham said that he couldn't disclose much information as to what the company plans to do with additional fiber it is laying along with the Moffat County project but he would confirm that there is in fact bandwidth that will be available for lease.

"We'll be leasing additional bandwidth to businesses and private agencies this summer," Mecham said. "We're also looking at leasing capacity to other entities and that's under negotiations now. I really can't comment on who that is. This business is very proprietary. I can say though that I don't think the commissioners would have gotten the beanpole funds had they not been as proactive as they were. I think you guys have some great leaders up there."

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