By Mark Esper
What started out as an effort to get Silverton wired with a fiber-optic link to the outside world has evolved into an ambitious project to create an Internet cooperative, with the Town of Silverton and San Juan County as charter members.
“The idea is for the community to own its own Internet service,” said Greg Swanson, president of the San Juan Development Association’s board of directors. SJDA is a nonprofit economic development agency for the county.
The first step is to get a Department of Local Affairs grant to install the core of what is envisioned to be an expanding fiber-optic network in town.
The town and county are preparing to apply for a $150,000 grant administered by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. That would require a $37,500 match from the town and county, $7,500 of which could be in in-kind services.
“We’re totally wiring the business district,” explained Pat Swonger, Silverton town trustee and a member of Operation Linkup, the community effort to improve telecom services. “Once you do that, it’s wide open. We’re opening it up to competition is the idea here.”
The town currently relies on a Qwest microwave link for its telecom needs. The county alone spends about $26,000 a year for Internet, phone and other telecom services.
County administrator WIlly Tookey said that figure includes cell phone use and about $6,000 a year for Internet services.
The school district’s bill is about $2,000 a month.
The idea is to have local governments buy bandwidth and share it among themselves and with businesses and eventually residents.
The project could get underway this summer, with the installation of fiber-optics lines linking Town Hall, the County Courthouse., the school, the Miners Union Hospital and the library.
“Bringing other parties in will reduce costs in the long run,” said County Commissioner Pete McKay.
Swanson said SJDA would consider offering a loan to “create a managing entity” for the telecom infrastructure, which could be expanded to include the Powerhouse Industrial Park and the Visitors Center.
Operation Linkup members say that eventually Silverton residents could get high-speed Internet, phone service and television routed through the system, at a lower cost than current providers.
Swonger emphasized that the project is in its preliminary stages, and research is being done on whether to string the fiber-optic line along San Juan Miguel Power Association poles or whether to bury the new line beneath the town’s allies.
“It would be almost double the cost to bury it,” Swonger said, although he suggested that might be the best route in the longer run. “There are a lot of different ways this could be done. Information is solidifying around this project.”
And Swonger said the project will give the town more leverage in its quest to get a fiber-optic link to town, either linking to Ouray or south to Cascade Village.
Under the federal program administered in the state by DOLA, some $4.6 million in telecom upgrades are slated for Southwest Colorado.
“We’re a very small part of the whole thing,” Swonger said.