On the heels of our story announcing a new open access community fiber project in Idaho, we have learned of a similar project in Cortez, Colorado. Cortez is the county seat of Montezuma County in the extreme southwest of the state and has approximately 8,000 residents. Much of Colorado has long suffered from Qwest's refusal to invest in modern networks -- though a more charitable take on it would be to say Qwest's inability because it simply does not have the capacity to invest in the kind of networks communities now need to take advantage of modern communications technologies. In the late 90's, Qwest's services in Cortez were served by microwave links incapable of meeting local needs and Qwest refused to invest in a better connection due to an insufficient business case. In the words of Rick Smith, Director of General Services for Cortez (and in charge of the network), the city then decided "to take its destiny in its own hands." They began building their own network. The initial phase was an I-Net, built with the City's capital funds, to connect schools and other public facilities. They were able to later expand that under Colorado's Beanpole Project, a program that sought to aggregate community traffic in an attempt to lure more private sector investment in networks. Along the way, they began leasing some dark fiber to private companies that needed better telecommunications options. When Qwest pushed through a bill in 2005 to limit local authority to build networks (click on Colorado on the Community Broadband Preemption Map), Cortez was grandfathered, leaving it with more authority to invest in this essential infrastructure than most communities. A press release details the financing for this latest phase:
Southwest Colorado Council of Governments secured the initial funding for this project which came from a state grant of one million dollars from oil, gas and coal leasing rights. The City of Cortez provided the 25% match for the grant funds. The funds are being funneled back into developing the economy and growth of Cortez and the surrounding area by offering potential large employers or data center providers the bandwidth and technology to grow their business from Colorado.
The Cortez Journal reported on the new network and local enthusiasm:
Ernie Young, a technical supervisor for Baja Broadband in Cortez, spoke at a Cortez Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, saying the proposed network is comparable in technological capability to networks in major metropolitan areas. "It's really impressive to see how far advanced this community is going to get with this fiber-optic (network) that is going to be put in as a backbone," Young said. Young believes the network will draw businesses to Cortez by offering information infrastructure capable of supporting satellite businesses, software companies and video conferencing.
The local Chamber of Commerce is fully supportive of this public investment:
Chamber of commerce Executive Director Dena Guttridge agreed. "Everybody is keeping an eye on little Southwest Colorado," Guttridge said. "Here we are right on the verge of launching this amazing project. I don't think people really understand what we're doing in this area. This is huge. We have the potential of having the fastest, most capable Internet in the state, and all over the Southwest."
From what we have heard, many nearby communities (including from nearby states) have been sending people to see what Cortez is doing and start investigating how they could duplicate it. Cortez is not immediately building the network out to all residents and businesses -- trying to build a universal open access network in a single phase is very difficult to finance. This phase will connect local businesses and will be expanded when opportunities allow for it. It is likely that this network will start by offering only data and phone services. Delivering television services require more investment and fewer providers are able to do it for smaller networks like Cortez and Ammon, Idaho. The Cortez Community Network Fiber Project web site has a significant amount of information as well as Frequently Asked Questions to help people to understand their approach. They list some great principles for the network, including Universal access, geographic equality, level playing field, community control, symmetrical and unlimited bandwidth. These principles are each elaborated on. Stating and defining these principles is a smart move for any community network. Though Qwest has not been able to build a next-generation network in Cortez, it has attempted to lock its customers into long-term (3 year) contracts in order to make life more difficult for the public network.