String of internet outages keeps Craig business operations tied up | CraigDailyPress.com

String of internet outages keeps Craig business operations tied up

CRAIG — In today’s global economy, it’s not always easy owning and operating a small business in a rural mountain town like Craig.

It’s even harder without reliable internet.

In the past year, area residents and businesses have suffered through multiple bouts of internet outages — some lasting more than 24 hours — and these service interruptions have real effects on the local economy.

Liane Davis-Kling is owner of Downtown Books — a small coffee shop and book emporium offering free Wi-Fi to passersby. Usually, her small dining area is dotted with laptops and customers drinking fresh coffee. But Davis-Kling said in the days following Christmas, an internet outage forced her to conduct business on a cash-only basis, and she was unable to order books online for at least two customers until internet returned.

“It was irritating,” Davis-Kling said.

Another Craig company, Chaos Ink, is especially dependent on the internet for its deadline-oriented printing business. Owner Jeremy Browning said he has eight full-time employees and will celebrate 15 years in business in May, but his business has been stopped cold more than a few times this past year.

“We grind to a halt over here when we don’t have internet,” he said.

Luckily, Browning has been able to improvise to meet printing deadlines, employing an internet hotspot through his cellphone carrier in the days following Christmas.

“We were running the whole front end of my shop off a hot spot …” Browning said. “But when you’ve got five computers and a printer connected to that thing, it slows things down for sure. But if it wasn’t for that, we would have been DOA, man. We had stuff that had to be done that day on the web. We were in trouble. It was tough.”

Browning said he has taken steps to be better prepared for internet outages, including making sure his business phone lines, which are also tied to his internet service, are forwarded directly to his cellphone in case the internet goes kaput.

The outages have also forced Browning to consider leaving a large company, like Spectrum, for a local internet service provider, such as Zirkel Wireless or High Rapid Networks.

“All it’s gonna take is another big outage like that, and I’m gonna be shopping around, for sure,” Browning said.

Chris Trower, 30, is co-founder of High Rapid Networks — a newer, local internet service provider based in Craig for the past two years. Trower said High Rapid Networks siphons customers from large internet service providers every time there’s an outage.

“It actually boomed our business,” Trower said. “We had a lot of calls from people wanting to switch providers because we were one of the only ones still up. I don’t think Zirkel was affected, either. We were up and had a lot of sales calls and a lot of installs.”

Trower said he’s picked up between 50 and 100 new customers in the past few months from people leaving a larger internet provider due to outage issues.

“That was apparent,” Trower said. “A lot of them were coming to us because we were still up. They needed internet as soon as possible.”

Fighting for better internet in Craig

Many in the Craig community have fought for more reliable internet over the years. Most recently, the Moffat County Broadband Initiative was close to securing federal and state funding for municipal-owned internet infrastructure feeding the city of Craig. MCBI’s plans included 14.7 miles of middle-mile fiber infrastructure serving 38 community anchor institutions in Craig, as well as the buildout of a Meet Me Center.

Moffat County Broadband Initiative and Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) officials pose for a photo following a grant presentation to the State Advisory Committee on Nov. 7 in Burlington. Pictured, from left, are Craig City Manager Peter Brixius, DOLA Regional Manager Kimberly Bullen, Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership Executive Director Michelle Perry, DOLA Executive Director Irv Halter, Craig City Councilman Derek Duran, Yampa Valley Electric Association CEO Steve Johnson, Mammoth Networks Vice President of Colorado Operations Evan Biagi, DOLA Regional Manager Greg Winkler and Craig Mayor John Ponikvar.

A joint effort involving several local community anchor institutions, MCBI was led by the city, Moffat County, and Craig/Moffat County Economic Development Partnership. In addition to those three entities, Memorial Regional Health, Colorado Northwestern Community College, Moffat County School District, and Moffat County Local Marketing District were also part of the effort.

After almost securing the grants needed to build a faster internet system in Craig, business and government leaders put the brakes on any municipal-owned internet infrastructure in November, when Yampa Valley Electric Association announced it would build a similar network.

YVEA CEO Steve Johnson explained the cooperative intends to offer the same open-access network MCBI had planned, while including similar middle-mile infrastructure and fiber extending to entities and residences that sign up for service.

“We have similar interests to the city of Craig — to serve our member organizations, businesses, and residents. This project falls in line with our mission of providing critical infrastructure to our members,” Johnson said. “The work done through the Moffat County Broadband Initiative — with the city of Craig, Moffat County, and CMEDP at the helm — acted as a catalyst for us to enter the broadband space, as many electric cooperatives across the country are doing. The collaboration within the community is making this buildout possible.”

Bryan Curtis, vice president of information technology at Memorial Regional Health, was among those intimately involved in the fight for better internet in Craig due to spotty internet at the hospital.

“We’ve had times when there’s an outage, and we’ve had to reschedule appointments because we don’t have access to the (records) to be able to treat those patients,” Curtis said. “It definitely has been a hardship and impacted our ability to serve patients from time to time.”

Curtis has become very familiar with internet service capabilities in Northwest Colorado and wants to see greater competition when it comes to reliable internet.

“One of the major challenges has been really the primary vendor in and out of Craig was CenturyLink, which runs east through Steamboat and eventually curls down to Denver,” Curtis said. “That line just hasn’t been stable, and it hasn’t been reliable — I’m sure for a number of reasons on CenturyLink’s end that I can’t really speak to, because they never give us the details of what the failures are.”

The Craig Press reached out to CenturyLink for information about the cause of any service interruptions during the past year, whether customers were reimbursed for interruptions, and what CenturyLink is doing to keep Craig’s internet constant.

A spokesperson said in an email the company knows about Craig’s internet troubles.

“We are aware of reports of network issues in Craig, Colo., and are investigating the matter,” wrote CenturyLink spokesperson Francie Dudrey in the email.

CenturyLink did not respond to additional queries.

The problems with CenturyLink led Curtis to establish several redundant sources of internet to avoid more headaches.

“We’ve tried to leverage just about every available technology that’s here to have as much redundancy as possible,” Curtis said. “It’s gotten better in the last little while with Mammoth and Visionary and some others moving into the area, but for a good while, it was a real struggle.”

If Craig can secure fast, reliable fiber-level internet, Curtis is convinced the city can diversify its economy from a dependence on the more established coal and oil industries.

“I realize that energy is a huge boon here, but there’s been some challenges in the last few years from government that should show folks maybe that won’t always be something this area could hang their hat on,” Curtis said. “If that’s the case, we need to make sure we can continue to provide services to this community, and to survive, I think we have to look at other ways to diversify the economy. I think technology is one of the best ways to do that. If you look at almost any major industry these days, technology plays a major roll in it. So, I think taking the perception of ‘we don’t need that’ is a little bit backwards when it comes to keeping this area viable.”

Contact Clay Thorp at 970-875-1795 or cthorp@craigdailypress.com.