Rural Colorado Internet Access and Mountain Connect - Community Broadband Bits Episode 137

Last year was the first year I attended Mountain Connect, an event in the Rockies west of Denver that discusses approaches to improving Internet access. Historically, they focused on rural communities but as co-chair of the event Jeff Gavlinski notes in our discussion this week, they are expanding it to include more urban issues as well. Mountain Connect is growing in many ways and I am excited to return to it in early June. 

As Jeff and I discuss, it is focused on all solutions to expanding access - whether private sector, coop, muni, partnership, etc. Colorado has a lot of activity from munis and especially munis that are looking to partner, but also has a state law that requires a time-and-energy consuming referendum before the community can really do any planning or take action to improve its situation. 

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Transcript below.

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Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."



Jeff Gavlinski:  We'll never lose our focus, as a base, in terms of talking about how do we fix our rural infrastructure issues.  But we need to also be cognizant of the fact that we have broadband issues in our metro areas as well.


Lisa Gonzalez:  Hello.  This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  I'm Lisa Gonzalez.

If you've been paying attention to community broadband lately, you know that Colorado is one of the busiest places for municipal networks, and one of the places where local communities are taking the necessary steps to regain local authority.  Colorado is also home to Mountain Connect, a broadband conference that draws people from all over Colorado, and even from surrounding states.  Chris has presented at the conference, and describes it as one of his favorite events.  This week, he speaks with co-chair, Jeff Gavlinski, who shares the story how the event has grown to include topics beyond the original focus, which was rural connectivity.  Jeff provides information on the upcoming conference, which is scheduled for June 7th-9th in Vail.  Jeff also gives us an in-the-trenches perspective on Colorado's existing state barriers.  Currently, local governments face too much uncertainty to take any steps, even in creating partnerships with private entities.

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Now, here's Chris and Jeff Gavlinski from Mountain Connect.


Chris Mitchell:  Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  I'm Chris Mitchell.  Today, I'm speaking with Jeff Gavlinski, the co-chair of Mountain Connect, a wonderful conference that will be coming up in Colorado in June.  Welcome to the show, Jeff.


Jeff Gavlinski:  Thank you, Christopher.  Thanks for having me.


Chris:  Absolutely.  I've known about Mountain Connect for a while.  And last year was my first year attending it.  And if I could go back in time, I would definitely get to some of those earlier shows.  You know, I -- Let's just jump right in, with a description of what Mountain Connect is like.


Jeff:  Well, let's talk about the history.  You know, the conference originally was started as a community-based effort, to talk about -- you know, back in 2009, with the ARRA fund and grant, the state of Colorado was awarded $100.4 million, and that award went to EAGLE-Net.  And so, Mountain Connect really started based on conversations about how infrastructure should be built, based on how the grant was written.  And so, you know, in the early days of Mountain Connect -- we're celebrating our fifth year this year but -- So, over the past five years, the conference has grown quite a bit.  You know, originally, the conference was set up as a two-day conference, to get everybody in one room and talk about where infrastructure needed to be put in our rural communities.  And then last year, myself and my partner, Audrey Danner, we changed the constructs around so that it would look and feel like a traditional conference.  And then broaden the voice as well.  So we reached out across the country.  And I think this year, we're going to have more of a national exposure to our conference.


Chris:  One of the things that I definitely noticed was a real emphasis on more rural communities.  This was not a gathering of people just from Boulder and Denver and Colorado Springs or something like that.  It was a lot of mountain towns.  And the people that came in from areas were from places like Bozeman, where it's fairly small compared to other metro areas.  So, is there something that you're doing to try and attract more of these areas that have been left behind?


Jeff:  Yeah.  So, historically, you know, the conference -- originally, the tag line to the conference was, "Rural Broadband Development Conference."  And you'll notice, in 2015, we've removed the word "Rural."  And I'll get to why we did that, this year, in a second.  But, you know, again, originally, going back to how the conversation started, it was really going to be the impact to our rural communities.  And what do we need to do, in places like, you know, in Durango and Steamboat, and even places like Marvel, where they have no infrastructure.  So this year, we've removed the word "Rural" -- and I'm pretty excited about this, actually, because I think we do spend an awful lot of time -- It's very important to talk about rural issues.  But we also need to bring light to the fact that we have a digital divide even in places like Denver.  So we have disadvantaged communities, where they're surrounded by great infrastructure, but don't have access to it.  So we have students who -- they may have good connectivity in their -- in the schools they attend.  But once they get home, they're unable to do research, or are unable to get online.  And so, we need to address this issue.  So I felt it was important to be inclusive of the entire state.

And I think -- you know, the other thing that is very important is -- as we started out focusing on our rural issues, we've caught some attention from neighboring states.  So, as you mentioned, Bozeman -- we have -- we will have folks this year coming from New Mexico and Wyoming and the surrounding states, to see what we're doing.

We'll never lose our focus, as a base, in terms of talking about how do we fix our rural infrastructure issues.  But we need to also be cognizant of the fact that we have broadband issues in our metro areas as well.


Chris:  One of the things that we like to preach is the "all hands on deck" approach.  You know, and our listeners know, that we're strongly supportive of community networks.  But we've never suggested that that's the only path, and that alone could, you know, solve the problems that we need to solve.  And so, one of the things I've enjoyed about Community Connect is that there's a lot of different approaches represented.  You've got the muni, you've got co-ops.  And then you've got multiple private-sector approaches.  You know, you have some of the big companies.  But you also have WISPs that have been coming -- the wireless Internet service providers.  And so, I'm curious, has that been a big motivation, to make sure that everyone felt welcome at Mountain Connect?


Jeff:  So, we -- Yes, very much so.  I think, in the past -- you know, the first three years -- there was a lot of discussion around municipal infrastructure.  And we were very careful last year to be very agnostic in our approach to infrastructure, in terms of the technology delivering broadband.  And we will continue to do that, so that -- you know, I feel it's very important for us -- myself and Audrey -- as we're putting on this conference to bring everyone to the table.  Which would include carriers, which would include WISPs, satellite companies, etc.  To bring them all to the table, to start the discussion.  I mean, that's, I think, our responsibility to citizens.


Chris:  I think that approach actually fits well in Colorado, in particular, where, you know, not only are you very clearly a purple state, but you also have the Department of Local Affairs [DOLA], a state agency that I think of as a bit of a model, in terms of the state looking for how it can help local and regional approaches without stepping all over them and telling them what to do.  And I -- you know, you live there; you have a better sense of what's happening.  Would you say that that's the approach that we've seen out of the Department of Local Affairs?


Jeff:  I live in a region of Colorado that benefited from DOLA.  We have a network down here called the SCAN Network, which is the Southwest Colorado Access Network.  And three years ago, DOLA provided $3 million in grant funds to our region.  And we, on our end, had a multi-community $1 million match.  And so we built a network down here to connect all of our community anchor institutions, as well as, as best we could, interconnect our communities, so that we could 1), obviously, provide state-of-the-art broadband services to our community anchor institutions, but also, at some point in the future -- and this is something we're seeing right now -- is, we're able to service sharing among communities.  And so it's had a huge impact.

Now, I was just at a meeting in Denver on Wednesday, where this very same topic was brought up, and what DOLA is going to be doing this year, for example, is providing money for strategic infrastructure planning, which is, obviously, a very important first step in any infrastructure project.  And, second of all, going to be providing for middle mile projects.  So -- which is a huge benefit.  Because one of the things we lack in Colorado, especially in the rural parts of the state, is redundant and affordable middle mile, which is critical to success for any community.  To have both of those things.


Chris:  And when you mentioned, a little bit earlier, the sharing of services among communities, do you mean, like, sharing contracts and procurement-type stuff?  What did you have in mind there, as to how SCAN has benefited the local governments?


Jeff:  Well, I'll give you an example: juvenile court proceedings.  If you have a juvenile that needs to be transported to, say, a court in Cortez, before, you'd have to -- they would have to be transported, you know, obviously, via a police car.  Today, all of that can be facilitated through video conferencing.  So, through this project, that's one of the benefits.  So if you think about it, we're saving -- there's safety measures being taken there as well as cost of transportation.  So, not only that but virtual desktops, you know.  And any sort of cloud-based municipal services can benefit from this network.


Chris:  All right, Jeff.  Let's turn to the big elephant in the room in Colorado.  You -- In Colorado, the sort of "movement" we've seen behind the community broadband networks.  You know, just eight recent election -- in the most recent election, you had eight local governments voting in favor of restoring their authority.  You've got a state law that's written, that's pretty murky, that cities basically have to -- or, I should say, local governments and rural areas as well -- they have to pass a referendum before they can really do anything.  Ah, you know, are we going to see any changes to that, in this coming session?


Jeff:  As I understand it, there might be something introduced later in the session to overturn or rewrite some of the language in Senate Bill 05-152.  As it stands today, if -- I'll give you an example of why this is very difficult.  So, if you have a municipality that owns conduit -- that is, you know, obviously, spent money to put conduit up and down their main street, right now, Senate Bill 152 is written in such a way that there's no standard for them to say that we can make a certain percentage of that conduit commercially available.  There's absolutely no minimum threshold.  So, most municipalities who have not opted out of Senate Bill 152 through a vote are not willing to challenge the language, despite the fact that it's very nebulous in terms of how it's written.


Chris:  For people who might be a little confused, the -- Senate Bill 152 is what's referred to as the "Qwest Law."  It was a law that was passed back in 2005.  So even though we still refer to it by its bill number, it is in fact law, and is obstructing the ability of many communities to either partner with others or to use their own infrastructure for the ways that might best benefit their community.


Jeff:  I believe the bill needs to be rewritten, so it's, at a very minimum, very clear in its intent.  Right now, it's not very clear, and I think that's where, you know, we get into the issues where municipalities are unwilling to venture into public-private partnerships, because of that -- the way the bill is written.


Chris:  Mountain Connect is going to be June 7th through the 9th.  Can I just assume that we'll be talking about a lot of these issues?


Jeff:  Our legislative session ends in May.  So, you know, because our conference is the first week of June, it's a perfect time to have a discussion, and hopefully we'll have some clarity in terms of what happened during our legislative session.  And, ironically, our conference theme this year is "Success Through Collaboration."  So we hope to be in a better position for our communities to collaborate in a public-private construct.


Chris:  Excellent!  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us, before we end the show?


Jeff:  Sure.  I'd like to at least give you an idea of what we're going to focus on this year at Mountain Connect.  Like last year, our core competencies -- or, topics we discuss -- are economic development, education, telehealth, fiber/wireless communities.  Those are sort of our core topics.  And then -- so, this year, we're doing -- so many things we're going to bring to the conference.  One thing we're going to do is, we're providing a Broadband 101 class for our elected officials.  And the intent there is to provide a good foundation for them.  It'll happen the Sunday before the conference starts.  But it will get -- it should give them a good foundation to enter the conference, to engage in better dialog, and hopefully ask better questions.  We're also going to videotape this class, which will be a four-hour session, facilitated by Dr. David Reed, from the city of Boulder.  And what we'll go after the conference is make it available, in its full version as well as the 40-minute condensed version.  So, I'm pretty excited about that.


Chris:  Wow!  That's a really good idea.


Jeff:  Oh, thank you.  This year, you know, there's a lot of new, additional funds in E-Rate.  So Colorado, for the next five years, wanted access to $93 million.  So that's going to be a focus of discussion.  I also believe firmly that one of things that's coming our way that we're not talking about a lot is the Internet of Things, and its impact to our strategic planning.  So, you'll see that being discussed at the conference as well.  And I spoke earlier about our digital literacy issues, and metro areas like Denver.  You'll see that being brought to the surface.  And then the other one I'm real excited about, too, is -- we will have all of our federal acronyms well represented at the conference, you know, in terms of federal funding.  But one of the things you don't typically see -- or I have not seen at a broadband conference -- is private equity, or private capital.  So, I'm working to bring private capital to the discussion as well.  So, angel investors, you know, VC -- venture capital firms -- as well as some of the large banks, as you know, like CoBank.  So, we're trying to make sure that we're covering all bases for our constituents here.


Chris:  Excellent!  Well, I hope we'll see a number of people signing up, and meeting us out there.


Jeff:  Yeah.  We're expecting 400 participants this year, and to sell out our exhibitor space.  We're very much ahead of schedule from last year.  So, I look forward to having you come out.


Chris:  And thank you so much for all your and Audrey Danner's work in organizing the event.  I know it's a ton of work.  But I think it's a very interesting event.  And it's not your typical kind of conference.  There's some very interesting conversations that I had there, that I had not had anywhere else.  So, thank you.


Jeff:  Oh, thank you for that.  Thank you.  You know, I really enjoy putting this conference on.  It's a labor of love in a lot of ways.  And, as I said earlier, I'm always looking for ways to sort of reinvent this conference wheel, if you will.  And think outside the box.  And, you know, add some different components to it that you don't typically see at other broadband conferences.


Lisa:  We have more information about the conference on the website, so be sure to check it out.  Send us your ideas for the show.  E-mail us at .  Follow us on Twitter.  Our handle is @communitynets .

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We want to thank Persson for the song, "Blues walk," licensed through Creative Commons.  And we want to thank you again for listening to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.