San Juan County and the Town of Silverton filed a formal complaint Wednesday, June 30, with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission against Qwest Communications, Inc. for failing to complete the last 16 miles of a state-funded fiber optic line.
The complaint alleges that Qwest has provided sub-standard telecommunication services to Silverton as the San Juan County seat since June 30 2005, the state mandated deadline for completion of the work.
As with every other Colorado county seat, a fiber optic connection was funded for Silverton by the state through the 2000 Multi-User Network for Telecommunications (MNT) Project. In this technology initiative, the state defined and funded a simple standard for fiber optic connectivity to every county seat.
Qwest was paid $37 million by Colorado taxpayers and given a lucrative 10-year contract to build and maintain this state fiber optic network. Silverton and San Juan County were never connected.
Qwest delayed installing the last 16-mile section of fiber optic line to Silverton until after the official close of the project in 2004, assuring local officials and the state that the line would be completed after routine right-of-way issues were resolved.
In the five years since the Qwest construction deadline passed, Silverton residents, businesses, educators and government organizations have worked to complete the fiber optic connection to their community through an ad-hoc group called Operation Linkup.
According the Greg Swanson, head of the San Juan County Development Association and Operation Linkup member, “Our very survival as a community is at stake. A reliable fiber optic connection to the rest of the world is just as important to Silverton’s future as any rail line or highway in the past. Our telecom infrastructure must be on an equal footing with all other Colorado counties or our citizens can’t possibly have equal access or a uniform level of service.”
“Qwest claims that they have met the 2000 MNT obligations, but no documentation or sign-off can be found to prove it,” says Jason Wells, Silverton Town Administrator. “According to state records, Qwest was only allowed temporary use of the existing a microwave radio link until June 30 of 2005.”
A single radio link has been used in Silverton for nearly fifty years, the only consumer connection to the outside world connecting all telephones, cell phones and broadband services in this remote county seat. Town and county officials claim this “primitive” telecom infrastructure is having a debilitating effect on local economic growth and business development.
An avalanche took out power to a Qwest radio relay tower in 2004 causing a 24 hour interruption of all telecom services including intra-county emergency 911 services. The increase in solar activity anticipated for the next few years also concerns local officials who anticipate more slowdowns and interruptions of the microwave radio link.
“We’re not second-class Colorado citizens. We’re not willing to be the only county seat left behind a fiber optic divide,” states Willie Tookey, San Juan County Administrator. “This was a critical technological initiative fully funded by the taxpayers of Colorado in 2000. As an analogy, Qwest was paid to build an information superhighway to Silverton and they barely widened the existing mule trail.”
Some community leaders are even more critical of Qwest, including Patrick Swonger, a Silverton Town Trustee and Operation Linkup founder. “From our perspective, Qwest put profit before our community during the Nacchio-era by not installing the last 16 miles of the fiber optic line.
Current Qwest management has stood by this multi-million dollar bait and switch. We feel that the PUC is our best hope for addressing the inherent unfairness of Qwest’s action and the inferior level of telecom infrastructure and resulting services provided to Silverton as a county seat.”
Pete McKay, a San Juan County Commissioner agrees saying, “We’ve been through 10 years of Qwest excuses, delays and now refusal to connect Silverton by fiber optic to the rest of the world.
“A decade ago our microwave radio system was considered technologically inferior to fiber optic and designated for replacement by 2005,” McKay said “Our county has only fallen further behind the rest of the state and the world this past decade. Through inaction, Qwest has perpetuated a sub-standard level of telecom service to San Juan County citizens, businesses and organizations while maintaining an unfair monopoly as the operator of the radio link and only telecom path to Silverton.”
The town and county’s PUC filing argues that fiber optic infrastructure is a critical aspect in assessing the uniformity of telecommunication service provided to all Colorado citizens. In 2000 the state mandated and funded a fiber optic connectivity standard for every county seat.
The intent of the initiative was to reach small and remote counties to level the technological playing field across the state.
Ten years later the fiber optic gap has only widened for San Juan County and Silverton which remains at the end of an out-dated land-based radio link.
McKay summed up the intent behind the community’s PUC filing against Qwest, “It’s our hope that the PUC will act to protect the interests of our citizens and recognize the inequality of the telecommunications environment in Silverton relative to all other Colorado county seats.”