This is the transcript for episode 365 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Cody Crooks from Rio Blanco County about their broadband project, which is bringing high-speed fiber and wireless connectivity to residents of the Colorado county. Listen to the show, or read the transcript below.
Cody Crooks: It's pretty incredible to see our community, even though we're still a small ranching community, that people really care about connectivity and for some families it does drive where they live.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 365 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. While Christopher attended the Mountain Connect broadband conference in Colorado, he met up with one of the folks working on the Rio Blanco County broadband network project, Cody Crooks. The open access network has long been on our radar due to the scope of the project and rural nature of the area it serves. In this interview, Cody updates us on their progress and describes why the western Colorado county chose that particular model, and he also explains how they've tweaked it to suit their environment. Cody offers his ideas on why the Rio Blanco County fiber network is reaching such high take rates, and he shares a few stories of subscribers who came to the community specifically for the fiber. He talks about how they funded the network and describes the benefits it has brought. Chris and Cody also talk about Project THOR, a regional effort established when local communities decided to band together to reduce costs and improve connectivity. Now, here's Chris with Cody Crooks from Rio Blanco County, Colorado.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, normally in Minneapolis, but today in Keystone technically, near Dillon, in Colorado for Mountain Connect. I'm talking to Cody Crooks, the Rio Blanco County director of communications. Welcome to the show.
Cody Crooks: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: So Cody, you are running one of the most fascinating networks from my perspective, a county-owned network in northwest Colorado that just, I think, blew everyone away with the support you've had from the community for it. So let's just get started with Rio Blanco — not a major urban development situation, right? What's Rio Blanco like?
Cody Crooks: Rio Blanco's very diverse when it comes to the topography. We've go extreme mountains in the eastern side of the county and then more desert in the western side. We only have two towns, but they're 65 miles apart. So when it came to doing this type of broadband project, we had to think about, you know, all aspects. You know, most of the time, people always want to know which is better, fiber or wireless. Well for us, it's both. So we have a fiber footprint inside both of our towns and then we have wireless throughout the rest of the rural area.
Christopher Mitchell: Which is substantial. I mean, you're a very large county,
Cody Crooks: Very large. We're the second or the third largest county in Colorado for landmass, but we only have 6,000 constituents in about 2,800 households total. So I mean we're still really small, but a very large county.
Christopher Mitchell: And your network is totally built out now?
Cody Crooks: No, we are actually in the final stages of doing our network. Our fiber network will be completed this year, but our wireless, we just started our first phase of our secondary towers for the wireless side. That's going to reach a lot of our remaining constituents but not all of them, so we are looking at doing a potential second phase to reach that last, you know, few addresses out there. It's just around a hundred addresses that we have left after the secondary buildout's done.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I seem to recall that the goal was like 95 percent coverage, right?
Cody Crooks: That is the goal. When I came in the idea was let's get broadband to every single person we can. After taking a look at all the addresses that we have in Rio Blanco County, about 5 percent of those addresses are like, well sites and oil wells and so forth. So, we have about 95 percent of those addresses that we want to reach, and we're on the right track to actually getting that done this year for about 65 percent and then the last 30 percent will be in that secondary phase for those buildouts.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's just talk about the business model then. Often people feel like there's actually, like, just a challenge to doing Fiber-to-the-Home in a small community, and Rangely and Meeker together like 5,000 or so — is that right?
Cody Crooks: Five thousand as far as people goes. So Meeker has, I think it's about 1,500-1,600 homes. Rangely has right about 1,200-1,300 homes. So we're pretty close in that we actually built fiber out to every single home in the towns. And, it's not aerial. We wanted to direct bury to increase the longevity of the life of the fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: And so, just doing that, building a fiber network to a comparatively small number of homes — I mean, a lot of projects are looking for 5,000 homes to be viable. That's one set of challenges that you've surpassed, and then the second set is using an open access business model, in which you're not providing the services directly. So do you have a sense of why that was decided?
Cody Crooks: Because we are a municipality — we own and operate the network — we also did not want to get into the customer service side of it because we are a county. So we did bring in some ISPs. We brought in two ISPs to provide that end user customer service. However, the county operates, as far as the network goes, up to the demarc, which is actually to the home, and then after that, all of those customer service calls and everything come in to those ISPs and they handle that customer service.
Christopher Mitchell: And you've limited it to two ISPs. You're not looking for any additional ones?
Cody Crooks: We have. Correct. It is an open access, so technically there could be more, but we recognize that for the constituents of our county that the best option was to offer two ISP.s Otherwise they just don't have enough customers potentially, and one of them or even two of them could die off. And we want to be able to promote local businesses, so we set a minimum on an amount that the ISP can charge. They can charge more. But if you put a minimum, they can't low ball each other, so it does force them to increase their customer service, which in turn is better for our constituents of our county and provides the best quality of service to them for the exact same price.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. So, you're worried about making sure that there's a continuing market as opposed to just trying to think, "Oh, we can just lower the price as far as possible."
Cody Crooks: Correct. Yeah. Where we differ as a county is where a lot of questions I get are you know, "How's that possible? How can the county be the network operator as well?" We don't operate as a business. We operate as an enterprise fund, so we're not in it for a profit. We just need to break even with our expenses every year, so that benefits the the constituents because we can keep those prices low where it's more affordable. I mean, most of our constituents in our county have low annual income, so they can't sit there and say, "Well, you know, I want a gig service," and pay what everybody else is charging — about, what, 200 bucks.
Christopher Mitchell: Depending where you are.
Cody Crooks: Yeah Depending on where you are. We offer a gig for $70. I think the only one that does that is Google.
Christopher Mitchell: There are a number of municipalities that have hit that price point as well, but I mean, five years ago that was crazy to think that we'd be doing.
Cody Crooks: Right? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, nobody would ever thought you could have a true gig to the home for 70 bucks a month. It seems to work out really well with our ISPs. They enjoy it. They have enough customer base to definitely keep themselves, you know, not only afloat, but I think they're kind of soaring at this point.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, well that's the part that actually really sets you apart and why I'm just so amazed. You were forecasting, what, a 35-40 percent take rate in the first year, right?
Cody Crooks: Yes. Initially that was — actually it was going to be 40 percent total take rate, and our take rate at this point is 87 percent in Meeker and 80 percent in Rangely. So —
Christopher Mitchell: Are these normal towns? Like, I mean, across the entire United States, we're talking about like 75 percent of Americans take Internet access, of those who I think can take it roughly. We don't really have good statistics, but nonetheless, in communities that I'm working with, 87 percent out of the gate is unheard of. What do you attribute that to?
Cody Crooks: I said this last year when I spoke at Mountain Connect and I kinda liked it. It just came off the top of my head, but I used the term starving. So all we had access to in Rio Blanco County before was CenturyLink and Charter, but because we were so rural, they didn't really care about our speeds. I mean, the max speed that we were offered was seven megs in some of the places in town, but majority of the place was only four. And in today's day and age, with all the technology that we have, four megs is nothing. I mean, you can't even really stream Netflix off of that, let alone do all of your homework that you need. So when we came in and offered true, you know, 25 [Mbps] over 25 [Mbps] and all the way up to a gig for those prices, a lot of our constituents were like, wow, that's what we need and we were starving for that. And so, as soon as they had access to it, everybody wanted it, and I think that has a lot to do with the pricing as well. I mean, you can sit there and say, "We'll offer you 25 [Mbps] or CenturyLink offers you 4 [Mbps]," but if you're doubling CenturyLink's price, they're not gonna switch because they're limited income. So I think a lot of it has to do with our pricing that we have for each one of our service packages and just the fact that our communities were ready for that broadband. You know, we were wanting it.
Christopher Mitchell: How's the interest been in the rural areas?
Cody Crooks: In the rural areas, I have people every day calling my office, calling the ISPs wanting to know if their house can see one of our towers. People in the rural areas, even though they choose to live out in the country and away from other people, they still need to be connected. They still want that connectivity. So every day I'm finding new homes, that people are coming in and building homes in, you know, the nooks and crannies of our county, and one of the questions they ask is, "Hey, if I build my house here, can I get Internet? Will I ever have the opportunity to get Internet?" And since we've kicked off the secondary tower project, the calls just have amplified, people wanting to know when their house is going to get connected and so forth. So I think that in the rural areas, you know, it's just as wanted as it is in inside the city limits.
Christopher Mitchell: I had talked to Brian Worthen earlier from Mammoth Networks, and he said that in part because you're in a smaller community, you know everyone, so you have a sense of people are moving to town in order to take the service, it sounds like. Do you have any interesting stories about people who have chosen to locate there?
Cody Crooks: Yeah, I know of eight different families over the last two years that have actually moved to a Rio Blanco County just because of the broadband. Unfortunately I can't actually name any of them. They've asked me in the past not to divulge that information, but one of them I can say, she was a little more open to discussing it. She is a online therapist, and she lived in the city for years, was tired of the hustle and bustle, and just wanted that slower pace of life and that country living. So she scoured the entire United States for rural areas, but because of her job, she required that strong connectivity. When she heard about Rio Blanco County broadband, she looked into it and she contacted me and was like, "Hey, I'm looking at renting this property. What can I have for access?" I let her know, and she says, "Okay, I will be moving there next week then." So she moved specifically because of the broadband, and that was the only reason she picked us. So I mean, it's pretty incredible to see our community, even though we're still a small ranching community, that people, you know, really care about connectivity and that for some families it does drive where they live.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the entities that benefits the most from networks like this, I think, often are local businesses. You know, in Rangely or Meeker, they were also probably stuck with four Megabits or so, I'm guessing.
Cody Crooks: They were. There were some other businesses that, because of the type of business they are, they could afford those business packages that CenturyLink offers. And, you know, those are just extremely high priced, but it was one of those that they decided, well, if we want to be able to have that faster service, we got to pay these prices. When it comes to a small town, you don't have a lot of revenue, and if a lot of your revenue is going towards, you know, the Internet, then you're not really taking a lot home or you can't really do expansions on your business and so forth. So our broadband that we offer to the businesses, we use a GPON network, so all of our residences are passive, so they do share. It's a 16-way split on that fiber connection, but for our businesses, we offer them a direct path so they don't have to share. They never have to worry about any lag time or anything. And we offered them the exact same price that it is for a resident, so we don't have business packages so to speak because we understand local businesses. The more money they can put into their business, the better the business is going to be for the constituents of the county. So it benefits everybody.
Christopher Mitchell: So how did you end up financing the network?
Cody Crooks: We're very different, Rio Blanco County is very different as far as how we financed our network compared to the other counties. We are an oil, gas, and coal county. A majority of our revenue, over 80 percent of our revenue, comes from oil, gas, and coal. We had money we kept putting into reserves, just sitting aside in case we ever needed it, and we ended up getting some commissioners that were innovators and understood that if we didn't do something with our broadband, our community could end up dying. So we ended up getting a DOLA Fund —
Christopher Mitchell: Department of Local Affairs.
Cody Crooks: Department of Local Affairs funding. It was about three and a half million dollars that we got, with a 50/50 match. The rest of it, we took straight out of our county funds, out of our what we would call the CCITF funding. So in total, the whole project is almost $17 million, and of that, about $12.5 million of it came out of our CCITF and about another a million came out of revenue over the years.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, funny enough, DOLA I think uses money from also taxes on extractive industries, so you kind of got double money from —
Cody Crooks: Yea, we did. We got some of that money back, so it was kind of nice. But I've talked to many other counties out there and unfortunately they don't have those types of reserves, so they're having to look more into the federal government for funding and so forth. But Rio Blanco County, we just got lucky and had the amount of money, you know, that we needed and decided to use it all. Now unfortunately, I do have to pay all that back over the years, but it was something that we were able to use up front and get this project off the ground. Most of the time, what I've seen in the research I've done is the project of this magnitude, both fiber and wireless, takes anywhere between five to 10 years for completion.
Christopher Mitchell: A little bit faster with the 87 percent take rate.
Cody Crooks: Yes! With the 87 percent percent take rate, that does push us a little bit faster to get everything done. So we're looking at when we're done with the build out, um, we'll have about a 92 percent take rate in our county, and we finish that in four years.
Christopher Mitchell: So the money you got from the local [government], that's all going to get paid back? It's like you basically took a loan from the reserve fund more or less?
Cody Crooks: Correct, yes. So that money, as soon as we finish our buildouts, which is this year, then part of my expenses, my annual expenses for my budget, will be going back into putting a portion of that revenue back into the CCITF so we can start using that money for the other departments in the county for other projects that they need to have done as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, I imagine the northwest part of Colorado leans very conservative. A 87 percent take rate suggests that most people are excited about this project. Have you heard from anyone who's worried about it or concerned about government getting involved with communications like this?
Cody Crooks: Not me, so to speak. My commissioners definitely hear those questions.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I was going to say, everywhere I've ever gone, there's at least one or two people who are very loud.
Cody Crooks: Yes, there's several people in the community that have expressed their concerns about, you know, government meddling down into private businesses and so forth, which is another reason why we separated my department from the county as an enterprise fund. But when it comes down to it, those constituents that were concerned about that, they're using the broadband, so it wasn't, you know, a big enough concern for them to say, "Well, I'm not going to take it."
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I'm going to stick with the 4 Megabits.
Cody Crooks: Right. So I think our commissioners — you know, I have to give it to all of our commissioners, past and present commissioners, that they've handled those situations and those questions very, very well. Even though they do have those constituents coming up to them and with those concerns, when that's all said and done, those constituents feel very comfortable about how we're operating, that we're not taking their tax dollars and using them for other departments and so forth. As an enterprise fund — which a lot of people didn't realize and I didn't know until I got into the government — when it comes to an enterprise fund, that revenue that we're bringing in from that wholesale that we charge our ISPs to access our network, I can't use that to, say, give to Road and Bridge to buy a new dump truck or a new grader. It has to be used inside of my department for fiber expansion or wireless expansions so that the taxpayers' money is being used for the taxpayers, even though that there are some taxpayers that don't have the broadband right now, that money that I bring in is going to end up serving them eventually.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. So if there's like a few people who are the hardest to serve, you just have to — eventually you'll have enough money to be able to connect them.
Cody Crooks: Yes. My ultimate goal before I retire from the county is to have that 95 percent coverage to all constituents, whether it's fiber or wireless.
Christopher Mitchell: Well that's gotta be pretty far away. You're only like 50, 55 years old, I'm guessing. One of the younger people at the conference.
Cody Crooks: Yes, one of the younger people. No, I'm 35, so I've got a lot of years with the county, and I'm very passionate about this project because I grew up in Rio Blanco County. I mean Rio Blanco County is home. I left for 15 years and all I wanted to do was come back. I heard about the project and was able to now run the project. I can really take all of the constituents in the county and understand that, you know, hey, this is home and you know, it's not just an open bank account that we should spend the money on whatever. We need to spend it on what's the wisest for our constituents and make all the taxpayers happy.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we often hear people saying makes projects like this worthwhile, even if they cost a lot, is giving kids more educational opportunities. You feel like that's happening?
Cody Crooks: Oh, absolutely. I mean we have kids that live in these rural areas that all they had was access to satellite. It was HughesNet or WildBlue, and those companies, you know, when they came in years ago to offer Internet to constituents that didn't have any Internet at all, it was great. However, they also put a data cap on it, and when you have kids, especially in today's day and age in the educational field — I mean, kids all have tablets or Chromebooks in school and everything is done digitally now, so when they come home, all their homework is done digitally. And when you have a data cap and kid's trying to upload his homework to the teacher and you max out your data and you're only in the first week of the month, you know, what are you going to do for the rest of the month? So this Wi-Fi that we offer in those rural areas really, really helps out the kids. You know, they can watch YouTube videos. A lot of our teachers in Rio Blanco County, they do videos on YouTube for their students, so that way they can help, you know, do like homeschool or home teaching and so forth. And these kids in the rural areas can now access those YouTube videos without the parents having to worry about maxing out their data, and it definitely, I think, will increase the amount of educational experience for the children as well as the knowledge that they can actually grasp at home. You know, they can sit there and if they have an interest in, you know, wildlife, they can start watching videos on that and so forth. So, in the educational field, you know, we offer fiber to the schools as well. So that gives us greater connectivity for the schools. They have a lot of webinars or webcams that they do, so I think that that really increases the kids' knowledge and education in the schools because they can see what the outside world is without having to actually leave.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. Was Project THOR essential for connecting you, or did already take care of your backhaul before then?
Cody Crooks: No, we actually were over halfway done with our broadband before Project THOR ever actually started. It was a discussion and I came in on the latter end of Project Thor, but it was one of those where Rio Blanco County, because we already saw what the broadband was doing for our community, we wanted to be able to give back to the rest of the counties, the surrounding counties in Northwestern Colorado as well as, you know, southwestern Colorado, Utah, Wyoming. If we could ever expand it that far, that would be fantastic too. So we took a very deep interest and an investment into Project THOR and understand that, you know, the more counties that we can get on this ring, the lower our bandwidth cost is, which makes it more affordable for these rural communities that don't have a lot of revenue. These counties that don't have that luxury of building their own network, well now they're paying less for their connectivity with Project THOR so they can take some of that revenue and turn around and do their own buildouts. So Project THOR, I'm 100 percent on board with that, and I think it's going to be one of the greatest opportunities for Northwestern Colorado as well as the whole state of Colorado because once we get this going, I think everybody's gonna want to jump in on it.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. All right, well thanks for coming on Cody.
Cody Crooks: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: It's a great place. I'm going to have to come visit, I'll tell you that right now.
Cody Crooks: Yes, definitely come visit.
Christopher Mitchell: Because I'm fascinated at 87 percent right out the gate. That's great.
Cody Crooks: Yeah, I mean it'd be incredible. When you're moving into a town and the first thing that somebody, a landlord says is "Well you got fiber optic Internet at your house." I mean, that's incredible in a rural community. So yeah, definitely come on by. I'll give you a tour of our state of the art data centers that we have and you know, take a look at the wireless network that we have as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Cool. Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: You're welcome. Thank you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Cody Crooks of Rio Blanco County, Colorado discussing their fiber optic network. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 365 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.