Colorado town fights Qwest to bridge a digital divide

Source: Denver Post
Author: Nancy Lofholm

Silverton is the only county seat in Colorado that is not connected to the rest of the state by fiber optics, causing problems for businesses running credit cards at the height of the tourist season, students trying to take classes and town leaders trying to attract new investment. The cables that bring high-speed digital access to the state's 63 other counties stop 16 miles south of Silverton, where Coal Bank Pass pitches steeply to the heart of the rugged San Juan Mountains. Disgruntled Silverton residents have been protesting that digital snub for more than five years. Now, they're ratcheting up their complaints. A $37 million contract that Colorado has with Qwest to link every county seat with reliable high-speed Internet expires next year, and Qwest is admitting that it has no plans to string cable to the only municipality in one of the smallest, poorest and most remote counties in Colorado. Instead of an information highway, Silverton has a road. Qwest has installed a microwave radio relay system to deliver cellphone and computer access. Qwest spokeswoman Johnna Hoff said that system is fast, has plenty of capacity and can be upgraded to accommodate growth. John Conley, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Information Technology, said it appears from old documents that state officials decided the microwave system fulfilled the requirements that all counties be connected. But Silverton residents learned in 2005 that the microwave system is not as reliable as fiber optics. An avalanche took out a relay tower on Coal Bank Pass, and for about 24 hours, the town had no phone or Internet link.



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