Michelle Balleck: Building broadband for economic strength | CraigDailyPress.com

Michelle Balleck: Building broadband for economic strength

Michelle Balleck/For Craig Press

Michelle Perry

Broadband is a buzzword you've no doubt heard on television, on the radio and even over your morning coffee. You may be wondering what exactly broadband is and what your local community is doing to make it available for work, school, vital services and entertainment.

Our community's leaders understand that broadband is a critical piece of infrastructure to position us for business attraction, retention and growth.

Broadband is defined by Merriam-Webster as "of, relating to, or being a high-speed communications network and especially one in which a frequency range is divided into multiple independent channels for simultaneous transmission of signals (such as voice, data or video)." The Federal Communications Commission and the state of Colorado states the minimum speeds to be called broadband are 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload.

In many rural areas, local and state governments are working together to increase access to such speeds — and much higher — at affordable rates by constructing, owning and operating infrastructure that providers can access to provide the direct service to consumers. The state of Colorado recently increased state emphasis and reshaped the Broadband Program Office. The state hired Anthony Neal-Graves as executive director to help lead Colorado to 85 percent rural broadband coverage by the end of 2018 and 100 percent by 2020.

Our local governments are involved, too. The city of Craig and Moffat County are partnering with Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership to lead the implementation of our Broadband Strategic Plan, completed earlier this year. CMEDP has financial support from those three entities, plus Memorial Regional Health, Colorado Northwestern Community College, Moffat County School District and Moffat County Local Marketing District to drive the broadband process forward.

Following is our mission statement and priorities for our work: Moffat County will have access to universal, reliable, affordable broadband with speeds and bandwidth necessary for business recruitment, growth and retention; education, health care, public safety and government applications; and high quality of life for all who live in, work in and visit our communities.

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• Create redundancy by gaining greater access to statewide and regional infrastructure.

• Build middle mile infrastructure to Craig community anchor institutions and business community

• Build middle mile infrastructure to Craig homes

• Connect Hamilton, Maybell, Dinosaur and north substation via wireless technology

• Build middle mile infrastructure to Maybell and Dinosaur businesses and homes

We know we need additional broadband service, because our residents and business owners have told us so.

In the Moffat County Business Climate Survey, which CMEDP conducted in February, more than 60 percent of the 79 business owners and managers who participated reported being very dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with the local internet service connection. There were at least 10 independent mentions of better internet service needed in the open-ended questions.

One respondent wrote: "In order for our business to be strong, we must have good schools, excellent broadband/internet, a healthy vibrant downtown area and good things for kids and seniors to do/participate in."

In 2015, Moffat County voters overwhelmingly overrode Colorado Senate Bill 05-152, which restricts governments from providing telecommunications services. With a more than 80-percent "yes" vote, local constituents made it clear that local governments should be able to fill in where there's not a strong business case for the public sector to offer services.

In December 2016, 40 representatives from nine community anchor institutions gathered at CMEDP's Moffat County Economic Prioritization & Action Workshop. Broadband was identified as the No. 1 overarching goal that affects every aspect of our community's economic strength.

We are working hard to make that a reality for our community.

We have joined the regional effort led by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments to create a resilient middle-mile network across Northwest Colorado that also aggregates bandwidth to ensure reliable low-cost broadband services. This project is known as Project THOR, and we will be sharing more information as that effort progresses.

We also are applying for grants to build out the fiber loop within Craig to allow our community network to tie into the regional infrastructure. We applied for funding through Colorado Department of Local Affairs in August. DOLA has since asked us to withdraw the current application and delay reapplying until spring so that we may work closely with their representatives to create the best possible financial and programmatic paths forward.

We will seek to match DOLA funds with U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration funds to complete the second goal — to provide middle-mile infrastructure to our anchor institutions and business community. This project would total about $4 million and includes local in-kind contributions from Yampa Valley Electric Association and the city of Craig.

We are moving forward quickly and steadily to bring the broadband service our community needs to fruition. This is the infrastructure we need to make a significant impact on the business climate of our community.

I welcome you to read the Moffat County Broadband Strategic Plan by visiting ci.craig.co.us and clicking on the broadband button. Then, contact me with questions or suggestions for our implementation efforts. This project is truly one that's reflective of the community's needs and wants and one in which we invite you to participate.

Michelle Balleck is the executive director of Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership and Marianna Raftopoulos Business Success Center. She can be reached at 970-620-4370 or director@cmedp.com.