Zirkel manager discusses Moffat County’s broadband future
CRAIG — It’s no secret that Moffat County desperately wants and needs access to reliable high-speed internet service, and the importance of the topic was further underscored by the size and composition of the crowd that packed the Lutrell Barn Cultural Center recently for a presentation about the future of broadband in the region.
Governmental and business leaders, educators, entrepreneurs and residents turned out in droves Nov. 15 for an interactive discussion with Josh Nowak, operations manager for Zirkel Wireless, who said the focus of broadband discussions, at least initially, should focus more on what the area needs rather than the specific mechanism by which those needs will be met.
“Most of us don’t really care how we get it or how it works,” Nowak said. “All we really care about is when we hit the ‘enter’ button, the page loads or the video plays.”
While Nowak agreed that broadband access is vital, he questioned some aspects of the approach taken in the Moffat County Strategic Broadband Plan, prepared in January by Diane Kruse, of NEO Connect.
“Access to broadband is tremendously important,” Nowak said. “It impacts almost every aspect of modern life. Equal access to broadband promotes institutional and economic equality, while no access does the opposite.”
Following a brief description of what the internet is and the various methods by which it is delivered, Nowak focused the remainder of his talk on Moffat County’s specific broadband needs, with a particular focus on its high-volume users and its underserved and unserved residents.
“The casual user only needs about 15 Mbps (megabits per second),” he said, adding that only a few high-volume users — such as physicians, law enforcement and hospitals — would ever need faster speeds. And, according to Nowak, such users in Moffat County — Memorial Regional Health, the Moffat County Public Safety Center and the Moffat County School District, for example — already have access to the broadband speeds they need.
The real crux of the broadband problem here is twofold, he said: the lack of redundancy and the unavailability of broadband to certain rural areas, such as Maybell, Hamilton and Lay. Accordingly, he said, the area’s broadband efforts should be focused on how to economically and efficiently address those two problems.
First, there’s redundancy. According to Nowak, the area’s broadband service is wholly dependent upon a single CenturyLink fiber line running from Denver.
“If one point (on that line) fails, the whole thing goes down,” he said.
Ideally, Nowak said, the best way to ensure redundancy — and, thus, reliability — would be to establish a second fiber connection to Northwest Colorado from Wyoming or Utah. The problem, he said, arises from the cost.
“The cost of true redundancy would run into the millions,” he said. “It will take a regional collaborative effort, and grant money should be leveraged to get that true middle-mile connection.”
The second part of the problem, Nowak said, is getting that signal to end-point users in underserved and unserved areas of the county. For that task, Nowak said expanding a fixed wireless system — which would get the signal “from mountaintop to rooftop” — would be an efficient and cost-effective option.
One possible course, he said, would be to leverage grant money in a regional effort to build a secondary fiber network to “anchor institutions and the business community,” then feed fixed wireless access points to serve consumers from those anchor institutions and businesses.
Nowak said the desire of Zirkel — which supplies internet service in Routt and Moffat counties via a fixed wireless system — is to educate the community as to its specific broadband needs, then collaboratively seek to target those needs rather than spend millions of dollars that might or might not bring about the desired result.
Reached for comment Tuesday, Craig City Manager Mike Foreman essentially agreed with the approach Nowak is proposing.
“We applied for a grant through DOLA (the Colorado Department of Local Affairs) and met with Greg Winkler and Kim Bullen (of DOLA). We’ve had phone conversations with them and have a meeting scheduled… They have the same feeling: We need to sit down, strategize, and figure out the best approach for Moffat County and the best use for those grant dollars. They’ve reviewed the original Broadband Plan, and they think there need to be some changes. We agree,” Foreman said.
He added that both DOLA and the local Broadband Committee are interested in fostering a collaborative approach to the broadband issue in Northwest Colorado, a regional effort that could involve Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.
“They (DOLA) want to help the entire state, and that’s what they’re trying to do,” Foreman said.
Dozens of people turned out to get answers from the Moffat County School District Board of Education during a community town hall held on July 16 at the former East Elementary School.