City’s broadband
 effort paying off

The Grand Junction City Council decided earlier this year against sinking $70 million into a new fiber network on fears that demand for high-speed gigabit service wouldn’t materialize and leave the city struggling to make payments on the debt service.

But the council’s flirtation with an “overbuild” that would have captured some customers of existing providers wasn’t in vain. It’s clear that the exploration of a private-sector alternative has energized legacy providers and may yield a partnership that will speed up private investment.

CenturyLink officials confirmed Thursday that they’ve pitched a proposal to the city for some type of arrangement that would allow them to gather the data they need to improve the company’s network where it makes the most sense financially.

“We filed with the city a proposal to move forward and in such a manner that would not risk taxpayer money or even city monies, to expand our network,” said Abel Chavez, state and local government affairs director at CenturyLink. “What we’re trying to do is establish a partnership that minimizes risk to the community and also to the company.”

The company is already slated to spend between $5 million and $8 million in the coming 18 months to lay new fiber or upgrade copper networks in a process known as “vectoring,” Guy Gunther, CenturyLink’s vice president of operations for Colorado, told the Sentinel’s editorial board. But the plan will “change dramatically” if the city decides to partner with the company.

Because the industry is so competitive, we have every reason to believe that the other heavy hitter in the valley, Charter, is making similar investments.

Copper networks vary in speed from 1.5 megabits per second, or Mbps, to 7 Mbps. The vectoring upgrades are designed to boost speeds up to 100 Mbps, so between those copper upgrades and new fiber lines, 32 of CenturyLink’s sites in the Grand Valley will have speeds between 100 Mbps and 1 gigabit per second.

Currently, even homes with the highest connectivity demands only need about 75 Mbps. But the public has little understanding of online speeds, Gunther said. For example, according to Federal Communications Commission, streaming HD-quality movies requires a minimum speed of 4 Mbps.

The partnership would allow CenturyLink to engage current and potential customers through city-sponsored town hall meetings, explain its existing capacity and plans to upgrade and then find out how many people truly want or need greater speed and are willing to pay for it. Quantifying demand can help the company identify “gaps and opportunities,” Chavez said.

The city isn’t guaranteeing customers, he added, but merely facilitating interaction with them so CenturyLink can determine demand thresholds that will justify investment in new fiber lines.

Intentionally or not, the city managed to make existing providers far more active in this market. The availability of high-speed internet is definitely expanding without a cost to taxpayers. It remains to be seen whether the council will bite on this proposal, but the council and city staff should take pride in accelerating the private sector’s response to a pressing public need.


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