A critical juncture will be reached next week in the Town of Silverton’s fight with telecom giant Qwest over the company’s failure to link the town to the outside world via a fiber-optics line.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission will be coming to town to conduct a hearing on the complaint filed by the town and San Juan County against Qwest.
The town claims that although Qwest was paid $37 million under a state project to provide a fiber-optics link to every county seat in the state, the telecom giant then left Silverton out of the project, which ended in 2004.
Pat Swonger, a Silverton town trustee and a member of Operation Linkup, the community effort to improve telecom links to Silverton, said each side in the dispute has about six witnesses lined up to testify in the two-day hearing, which gets started at 9 a.m. each day, Dec. 14 and 15.
Swonger said he expects the administrative judge conducting the hearing will probably take a few weeks to reach a decision on the matter.
Swonger said that Operation Linkup has for the last couple years “been really dedicated to the PUC strategy” to get Qwest to hook the town up, but he said “there are other strategies out there” and the group’s efforts won’t end, regardless of the decision reached by the PUC.
“After next Tuesday, we’ll still be meeting, no matter what comes out of it,” Swonger said.
“We have substandard Internet communications due to limitations of bandwidth,” Swonger said. He added that the town currently being served by a microwave link for telecommunications puts the community at risk if something goes wrong.
“We’re not redundant. That’s one of the biggest factors that clearly makes our situation different from any other county,” Swonger said.
Swonger said Operation Linkup has learned a lot in its fight with Qwest.
“We’re mobilized, we’re aware. We know what’s going on,” Swonger said. “We need to be proactive to correct this deficiency from 2000,” when the state contract with Qwest was awarded.
Swonger, in an opinion piece published on Page 2 of this week’s newspaper, urged the public to attend the hearings, even if they can’t stay for all the testimony.
“We need an audience,” Swonger said, to demonstrate to the PUC the community concern over the issue.
Swonger said Silverton is similar to the “mouse that roared” in its fight against the huge corporation.
“This hearing is the culmination of all our work,” Swonger said,. We finally get our shot.”
Among local witnesses lined up to testify are Swonger himself, merchant Wiley Carmack and businessman Pete Maisel.
They will discuss how the slow telecom link to Silverton causes problems processing credit cards, particularly in the busy summer months.
Swonger said merchants have noted a particular problem just before the train leaves town as visitors hurriedly make last-minute purchases by credit card and use their cell phones to round up their traveling companions to meet at the train.
The state’s 911 resource director, Daryl Branson, is also scheduled to testify on the town’s behalf.
Meanwhile Qwest is expected to call a few technical experts in the field to back up its claim that is has provided sufficient bandwidth to Silverton.
“When they (PUC officials) drive in here they will realize the isolation of Silverton,” Swonger said. “They may not be aware of just how isolated we are.”
The hearing will be conducted by PUC administrative judge Harris Adams.
Swonger expressed outrage that Silverton was short-changed in the publicly funded broadband initiative. He said his research shows it may have been due to cost overruns incurred by Qwest, but someone in state government signed off on it.
“It’s unacceptable for this community that it happened,” Swonger said. “Somebody needs to account for this. Who traded out our future? Who did it?”