Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 311

This is the transcript for episode 311 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher Mitchell gets an update on how folks in Larimer County, Colorado, are improving their communities' high-speed Internet access. Listen to this episode here.

Jacob Castillo: We'd love to see jobs created, wealth generated, that are low impact, environmentally-friendly types of jobs, and one of the enabling factors for that is high speed Internet.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 311 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. While Christopher was at the Mountain Connect conference event in Vail, Colorado, he caught up with other attendees and presenters. Some of the people he checked in with were from communities that are engaged in exploring better local connectivity. Drew Davis, Jacob Castillo, and Mark Pfaffinger from Larimer County, Colorado, were at the conference and took time to update Christopher on their efforts. They've recently received results from a survey and share some of the surprises that they discovered from people in Larimer County. In addition to improving connectivity in Larimer county for students and families, Drew, Jacob, and Mark were encouraged by the economic development possibilities broadband can bring. The guys also discussed the different strategies the county may take, and the role they expect Larimer County to play as the community moves forward. Now, here's Christopher with Drew Davis. Jacob Castillo and Mark Pfaffinger from Larimer County, Colorado.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell coming to you from Vail, Colorado, once again, home of the Mountain Connect conference for 2018, sitting across from three folks from Larimer County: Drew Davis, the broadband program manager for the county. Welcome to the show.

Drew Davis: Thanks Chris. It's a pleasure to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: We've got Jacob Castillo, the director of economic and workforce development. Welcome to the show.

Jacob Castillo: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: And Mark Pfaffinger, who says he's not going to say much, but welcome to the show, anyway

Mark Pfaffinger: Famous last words. Thanks for having us.

Christopher Mitchell: Mark is the CIO of the county. Um, so I'd like to just start off by asking, you are, you don't have to do the explicit boundaries, but Larimer County, home to some of the big cities that we've been talking a lot about -- Fort Collins and then also a lot of our listeners are very excited about Loveland and Estes Park and what's going on there. I learned Windsor's doing something, but what's Larimer County like?

Drew Davis: Well, Chris, Larimer County is about 2,640 square miles. We're bigger than the state of Delaware. We have a metropolitan area, in quotes, on the front range with the city of Fort Collins, the city of Loveland, smaller communities of Wellington and Timnath more rural areas, and then uh, the town of Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mount National Park. So we're a pretty diverse county. We're down flats and the sage brush at for 4,500 feet and then we have 14,000 foot peaks on the west portion of the county and actually we have one corner of the northwest corner of the county in the wintertime. You can't get there unless you drive through Wyoming to get there. So, we're a pretty big place with diverse populations. Most of our population is down on the eastern plains in the Loveland, Fort Collins areas. It is interesting that we have so much going on in Larimer County among our municipalities. The City of Fort Collins has just issued bonds to move their build for their city fiber project. City of Loveland is rapidly moving forward, I think they're getting ready to move into design. Town of Estes Park is through their design process and I think they're working on determining their business model and we're in Larimer County going, "How are we going to provide services to our customers that always tell us, you know, I live in the middle of nowhere," and our philosophy is that everywhere, somewhere, we just haven't figured out how we're going to get the service there. But that's part of our feasibility study we have going now.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Drew. Jacob, I'm curious if there's, you know, sort of a worry frankly that people would be flocking to these, I mean, some of these cities like Fort Collins, you're not just going to have a gigabit, you're going to have a choice of gigabit providers. So, is there a sort of a sense of existential concern for the county?

Jacob Castillo: To frame this a little bit, we're located about 45 minutes north of the Denver Metro area. Our MSA is about 250,000 people, we're expected to be a two-county region in northern Colorado of over a million people by 2040.

Christopher Mitchell: And if I could just interrupt you for a second. I've been out here for three or four days. One out of three of the people I've met are from Minnesota. So I think most of my states seems to be coming to your state.

Jacob Castillo: Lots of Minnesotans, lots of Chicagoans, Iowans. So, yeah, a lot of midwesterners here. And you know, I can't talk about in migration without mentioning California and Texas two other huge population centers that are moving into Colorado. So, as I was saying, you know, we're expected to be a million-person Metro area by 2040. You know, just down the highway from the Denver Metro area and we are concerned that we're not going to have adequate infrastructure to accommodate that growth. We're a hot market now. We have an unemployment rate hovering right above two percent. We have a lot of challenges in northern Colorado that other areas of the country would love to have. But the fact remains we have latent horsepower in our engine because we're not harnessing the intellectual capital that we have from citizens around our big and diverse county. So, I think that the concern that I have is that we're leaving some people behind. We're leaving some areas behind and, you know, for a county that really focuses on trying to serve everyone in the county, not just the north Front Range, that's not good enough. So we need to find ways to do better.

Christopher Mitchell: So, I'm really curious, because we have these conversations often with communities that are shrinking in population and they're really worried they can't draw in new businesses because they don't have the fiber infrastructure, which is one of the main requirements these, a lot of businesses have. Do you find that that in a more rural parts of Larimer County, are you losing business potentially, or is the county just so hot that it's not as much of a concern?

Jacob Castillo: We're not losing businesses per se, but I don't think we're capitalizing on the opportunities that we have, particularly in the rural areas where people have moved there for the quality of life, the experience of living in the rocky mountains. We'd love to see jobs created, wealth generated in those settings that are low impact, environmentally friendly types of jobs, and one of the enabling factors for that is high speed Internet. So that's where I see a tremendous opportunity for us.

Christopher Mitchell: Drew, do you want to jump in?

Drew Davis: If I may, Chris. Anecdotally, and actually out of our recent market survey, we're seeing that the ability to have high-speed broadband to a premise is a deal breaker in the real estate market. We're finding lots of places where realtors are taken somebody, showing them in a house in one of the rural areas where one of these location-independent workers wants to be and they say, "Well, is there 25/3 or more connectivity here?" And they go, "No, I'm sorry. It's a half a meg or one megabit." And they go, "Well, sorry, show me something else." And then we saw the same thing in our survey to our citizens as part of our broadband feasibility study, that it is definitely being identified as a deal breaker where people absolutely are going to have to have that. So if we're going to continue to have these independent workers in the remote areas in the county, we're going to have to figure out how to bring broadband to that area.

Christopher Mitchell: Mark, I'm curious about the, you know, in your role as CIO, what is the, are you limited in what you can do or are you thinking about things you could do when you have a greater fiber infrastructure in a hopeful future?

Mark Pfaffinger: Being an internal CIO for all my career, it is expanding of my viewpoints in terms of how we connect to the citizens of Larimer County. The role of government and how IT is connecting to the work that the county does is expanding. And, we're finding ourselves being in a lot of conversations that we weren't in five, 10 years ago. And so as a CIO, I see a lot of opportunities. We're spread out throughout the county in very diverse ways. We have 20-some building sites all over the county with the same kind of issues with connectivity. We serve citizens in very rural areas where we could potentially improve our access to citizens through our web presence or other kind of telework kind of scenarios. To the point where, you know, I'm all about serving the customers of Larimer County and so whatever IT does enables our departments to do a better job. Fiber, high speed broadband to all our communities, just opens up many possibilities on how to expand our county. It takes, I don't know how many hours, probably takes at least an hour and a half to drive from the far western corner of Larimer County into Fort Collins. That's a long day's trip just to go and go do your motor vehicle services or talk to the Human Service department or workforce development.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to think there's public safety implications as well. I mean, not only do you have blizzards and things like that, but more concerning right now you have fires. And whenever I talk to people in Washington state or California, they're excited about surveillance cameras on mountains and things like that to be able to try and catch these things early.

Mark Pfaffinger: Yeah. All those kind of technologies, you start opening up your possibilities. You know, we're so far behind with the diverse rural areas, where mountainous communities, we're just trying to get radio signal to areas that, you know, during our High Park fire we had large areas of the county or you couldn't even communicate. And so, you know, we recently got through a NEPA study. We have tower access and very rural areas we didn't have. And I think the next level of that is, that's not enough. We need real time surveillance and we need data access to our parks and open lands. We need some automation capabilities to keep an eye on our public assets. One of the things you hear about Larimer County, one of the reasons I moved there 20 years ago, was the amazing outdoor recreation and resources that we have as a county. We're starting to, you know, the need to put cameras, monitor and keep eyes on that space because it is a public asset is becoming a big issue.

Christopher Mitchell: So, Drew, I want to come back to you because you did a survey and one of the things you found is that people, not just people who are moving in the area one better broadband, but people who already live there want better broadband. You overwhelmed the company that you are looking, that you are working with to do this survey.

Drew Davis: Chris, it was pretty amazing. We sat down and did the planning for the survey in December of last year and we thought we might get a 10, 12 best ever 15 percent response rate. We sent about 12,000 -- we had 12,000 properties that we had selected that were candidates to receive the survey, and they were a mix of both full-time residential and a fair number, probably 40 percent are seasonal dwellings. We mailed the 8,500 surveys out thinking we'd get, you know, 8-900 of them back. It turns out we got a 32 percent response rate on our survey. The things that I find that make that so amazing is that one, it's a mail survey and the research says, you know, 10, 12, 15 percent on a good day. But the other thing is, I was really surprised because we have the number of seasonal dwellings that we got responses for that we put my phone number on the survey questionnaire and I would get one or two phone calls a day from people saying, "Why did I get this survey? I live in this town, I live in this town, I live in Denver." And then when you bring them back and say "It's because you own property in the survey area," they said, "Oh, absolutely. Let me fill this out and tell you what I really need in terms..." So, um, a lot of motivation from our constituents to be able to give us information so we feel like we have a really good statistically valid snapshot of what the demands and the needs of our customers are.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, there is a common belief among, I think more often people on the East Coast, people in the capitals of the various states who I think have a elite view of rural areas and they think people either don't want it or don't know what they'd do with it. Um, I think that's changing a bit. I've been asking this question similarly for five or six years and it's not as bad as it used to be, but what's your sense of people's desires in rural Larimer County?

Drew Davis: I think it runs the gambit, Chris. Um, we have some folks that they want to go to their second property and they want to drop out from the world and enjoy their weekend. There's a lot of folks that want this kind of service so they can spend more time there. But, more importantly, we do have a reasonable year-round population in some of these corridors. Um, we have a little village called Red Feather Lakes, and we recently were able to work with them to take their very, very slow DSL service and get them 50 megs of fiber connection into their library. And one of the things the library does is, has a pretty powerful access point on the outside and I was talking to the library director and he says, yeah, I see people that are logged in going to school-related sites till 11, 12:00 at night. So what's happening is, parents don't have the resources at their homes in the community. So they drive, they parked in front of the library and the kids do their homework on laptops with this Wi-Fi connection until they're done. And we're seeing that within the current school systems, we're part of the Poudre School District, which is a pretty big school district. And it's, you know, very well ranked, very well demanding that if you don't have good solid broadband connectivity, you're at a disadvantage for doing research, for submitting your homework and those things. So, um, it's interesting to see that there is both sides, but I think there's many more people that want to have this kind of connectivity than don't.

Christopher Mitchell: Mark, you want to jump in?

Mark Pfaffinger: We don't have a lot of details on this survey question, but there was a question that asked about your interest in starting a home business and we were surprised. There was a shocking number of respondents that said in the next five years they were going to start or had plans or desires to start some sort of home business. And that was a critical aspect of the home business was having adequate Internet service in order to run their whatever this was. And there was a couple regions up by Wellington which is on our northern, above north of Fort Collins, kind of towards the Wyoming border, which had a surprising uptick in the number of people that wanted to do new business startups. And so I don't know that Jacob or I have great data about what's driving that or what are the influences of that. But, but it was a shocking number of survey respondents were, you go, "Whoa, you know, this really is an enabler for people to be able to accomplish some of their aspirations in terms of running home business."

Christopher Mitchell: Jacob?

Jacob Castillo: Northern Colorado is an entrepreneurial area and knowing that there are a significant number of people in rural communities who are looking at home-based businesses or businesses that are only feasible or viable with the expansion of high speed Internet or broadband to their home is eye-opening to our policymakers, to our economic development partners. This is the kind of job creation and wealth generation that we want to see: low-impact job creation, but high-value job creation. It was an interesting finding. I think we'll do more work to unpack and uncover the nuances of that -- what type of businesses, what are the demands that they'll need from a telecommunications infrastructure. The other piece that I think is worth noting is that we have Colorado State University in within Larimer County and we have a number of federal laboratories and research laboratories as well. And, it's important for those researchers, professors, graduate students, et cetera, to have access to move data and information. Not just streaming video and stuff like that. We're talking about very real, very large data sets that need to move across significant geographies and that is only enabled through a high speed Internet. So in addition to the entrepreneurial side of things, there's also this economic development component that is brought on by the movement of data, information creation and um, it's just one of the things that we think we can do more and better with.

Christopher Mitchell: Do you see the members of the economic development profession better understanding this? I mean for a lot of years it seemed like I would talk to local officials who would say, who would they recognize the value of better Internet access and they would take it to their economic development official, whether it's local or more regional, and the person might be not very technical and just want to run away from it and not deal with it. Is that changing?

Jacob Castillo: I think it's changing and it's changing quickly. The economic development community is becoming more technical, more technological, technologically savvy. And I think part of the reason economic developers are interested in this is for reasons I spoke about earlier: there's real jobs associated with the expansion of high speed internet. There's real wealth. This is a strategy that communities, especially rural communities, can deploy to add value to their economy and their community. So, economic developers are waking up to it. I think they're grappling a bit with the technological side, but where I can tell you I've seen a tremendous interest is in the human side. And again, going back to how this transforms individuals and families and communities and I think economic developers have a very strong interest in seeing that type of investment in their community.

Drew Davis: Yeah. We had to take Jacob's tracksuits away from him when he became the sponsor on this project because, you know, he was one of those economic development guys that was going to run away. But what I was going to roll back to Chris is our survey results. There were a couple of things that were pretty interesting that really surprised me. One of those was that from the 35-year-old to the 70-year-old-plus folks, one of the primary uses of that information was to access government information. It was in the 70, 80 percent range of, that's what they wanted to use that for. The other one is when we ask questions about for education, I had expected to see primary education, high-school education. Overwhelmingly, the majority of use that the folks in this area was for continuing adult education was the use for the Internet. So we found that, very interesting, that there really is a demand, that it's not the school kids that really need to learn. It's those that are outside of the workforce or in the workforce that trying to do continuing education, kind of this new model of work where I have to prepare myself for new things, so.

Christopher Mitchell: So Larimer County has a number of competing priorities, I'm sure. If you'd gotten a 3 percent response rate as the broadband program manager, I can imagine that you'd be trying to make your case to the county commissioners and others. You have an overwhelming response rate. Does that give you sort of more responsibility and more power here as you try to figure out what to do? It seems like it's more of a priority perhaps than some realized.

Drew Davis: Chris, it quantifies what we've suspected through anecdotal information for a long time -- that people want this, but there are competing priorities. We have a very strong need for mental health facilities and mental health treatment. Um, we have a jail that's overcrowded. We have demands for streets and roads. Um, I see these as sort of complimentary things where we can take synergies between broadband connectivity, the need for mental health, telehealth facilities, helping to resolve some of the transportation issues by trying to provide alternative ways to deliver services and to move intellectual resources across to accomplish work.

Christopher Mitchell: So a logical question then is, what's next? I mean, it doesn't strike me that the county is likely to just go out and building a fiber network. I'm curious what options you're evaluating and what a timeline is for moving forward.

Drew Davis: Our plan as we went into our feasibility study with our provider, was that we were very, very focused on not having any preconceived outcome because we've all seen studies where the local entity goes in with an outcome and what do they get from the consultant, but the outcome. So we've gone in with a very broad open outcome. We've focused our study and some geographic areas that fits with, we had a mountain resiliency plan as part of our comprehensive plan for planning for the county. So we've aligned our study areas with the information we had from that. So we have the county broken up into geographic areas. We're going to see what the consultant comes back with it. And it may be a single strategy, it may be multiple strategies, it may be hybrid strategies. There may be places we do nothing, depending on what comes back. Um, we hope to have our study results November, December time to be able then be able to form a strategy for what we're going to do to move forward.

Christopher Mitchell: We have seen some counties that have just taken us on sometimes through the CIO department. Mark, I'm curious what sort of options that you're thinking about even as we're waiting for the results of this study, to come in. Do you, are there some that are more likely than others perhaps.

Mark Pfaffinger: Yeah. I think, you know even from the get-go of our study and talking with our commissioners, there's not a strong political interest to get into the utility business to be an ISP and serve the Larimer County citizens. So what a role of county government that comes up a lot and Larimer County as a facilitator, we're really the engine that helps make connections that we're there to remove barriers to be a facilitator of conversations between municipal, rural electric, our customers or citizens of Larimer County, and the commissioners really want to connect with their population and go, "Where can I make a difference?" Short of running their own utility and ISP service. So I think what we see a lot are opportunities around how can we bridge the gap between middle-mile connections, facilitating access to fiber, maybe to get to wireless access points for distribution. We have communities that are more mobilized and probably better candidates for pilot programs. So, I think in the next step we're really hoping something tangible comes out of this. The commissioners are champing at the bit to go, what can we actually facilitate and make a meaningful connection to, to show a difference to the community. Because once they get tied into the, to the, to the community needs and interests, they're all over it. I mean they're working on expanding I-25, which was a huge community need. They're looking at building, fixing some facilities issues and I think this is just another part of the thing and their whole strategic plan. You know, as an IT guy and a geek, I find this stuff kind of cool and fun. But I think realistically, you know, there's partners out there that can do better job than we can running a network. And so that's what we would look to do.

Christopher Mitchell: You certainly have several options. From City of Longmont, if they were interested, to multiple private companies, wireless and wired, certainly. So, I've worked with communities that don't have that luxury, so it certainly gives you more options. Drew.

Drew Davis: If I can jump in, Chris, one of the things that I also wanted to mention is that Larimer County has built broadband into their strategic plan. We do five-year strategic planning processes. We've just come off of one, we're beginning to do the second process. And in both of those plans, the ability to have broadband, what has been identified as a key goal within each of those strategic plans. And Jacob is our goal steward for economic development, which is where we've put broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: What does that mean to put it in the strategic plan? I've just, I think some people are worried that, in some of the communities that have dealt with, I think a strategic plan has worked very well. In other cases, it seems like an excuse for doing a minimum amount.

Jacob Castillo: That's a great question. And I think all of us have been part of organizations where you do a strategic plan every one year, three years, five years. And, uh, it never leaves the shelf for that period of time --

Christopher Mitchell: Right, that's a concern.

Jacob Castillo: -- The way Larimer County has approached strategic planning is that this is above and beyond the work that we're already, doing above and beyond the process improvements that we want to make. And it really does require added effort and added resources, with regular check-ins, with our elected officials, with county leadership. So there's, when something goes into our strategic plan, there's a lot of attention drawn to it and resources allocated. So when, when Drew says this is part of the Larimer County strategic plan, it means it's resourced to some extent and has some political horsepower behind it to make it work. So, we're confident that, you know, over the past five years and looking into the future five years that there are continued investments and exploring how we facilitate high speed Internet delivery to all of Larimer County county citizens.

Christopher Mitchell: Mark, I'm curious if there's anything as a CIO where you feel like it's easier to do because it's in the strategic plan, in the sense of maybe conduit or things like that. I'm not even sure if that falls under your department.

Mark Pfaffinger: We have a very diverse department of services. When it's in the strategic plan we try to make tangible objectives associated with it. So, you may start with the typical strategic plan statement around broadband or economic development, but we actually try to define specific, tangible objectives. One of those is looking at when we do road work, which is in the public works space, you know, maybe that's an opportunity to get some conduit or other mechanisms there to be prepared when the opportunities arise to be able to make that connection. We're partnering very closely, not just in IT, but in the engineering department and road and bridge and a lot of those other areas of planning to re-look at our code. IT is simply a facilitator, I think, at the end of the day. We, there's a lot of players that have as much or more influence in doing things down the road or planting seeds or preparing for the future as we have. The strategic plan has a commissioner sponsor, and if no one's willing to pick it up, it doesn't go on the strategic plan. So we have a political connection to the board. There's somebody watching over these and they're stewards of each of the objectives. I don't know yet if IT is going to have any objectives. It really depends on what our next five year plan looks like. If it is, then we'll take it on and hopefully we'll find a bunch of partners to help us with it.

Christopher Mitchell: So Jacob, I'm curious if you can tell us a little bit about how this has been interdepartmental.

Jacob Castillo: We know that there's a lot of different elements to deploying a broadband strategy wherever you are across the United States. And one of the things that we've had to do in, in Larimer County is take an interdepartmental approach to this. So, we have public works, IT, economic development, all working on this and I think that's really showing the community that this is a problem that's multi-dimensional, it's a challenge that has many facets and we have to approach it that way. And sometimes it's difficult when the community or elected bodies or business and civic leaders think of it as just a technology, just a technological solution and really there's much more that that's involved in this. And, you know, we're trying to take a very holistic approach in how we look at broadband deployment.

Christopher Mitchell: And that's certainly a characteristic we've seen among successful projects is that willingness to work across silos. Dre, I want to wrap up with a question to you, because I've been impressed with how seriously you've taken the research of this. You're one of the people that sends us things we haven't seen before and keeps us in the loop, which we appreciate both things locally and sometimes across the country. I'm curious if there's something that you've seen other communities do, like a mistake, you don't have to identify who it was that you've been conscious to avoid making.

Drew Davis: Chris, I think what I have seen is those communities that are the most successful are that they take the time to go slow to go fast, that they come in, they find the champions in their communities, they find their stakeholders, they go in and take a logical, methodical approach to really understand their customers, what their customer needs are. And then they come in and they build an adequate business plan, they make sure that they understand what the possibility of this being successful based on take rates and other political climates are. But it's not something that I go in and I deploy my broadband in 90 days and hope to make money. It's a very slow, methodical plan process where you, at the end, you understand that you're running a business. And yes, government doesn't move as fast as business, but we can need to follow those same things that we need to build a program that makes sense from a business perspective. And the other thing is, you can't be afraid to make a mistake, but you have to be able to recognize that and step back and regroup and come back at it from a different direction where you're not successful.

Christopher Mitchell: Mark, you want to add onto that briefly??

Mark Pfaffinger: Just real quick. I would say, too, engaging the regional partners. We have very engaged and collaborative partners in all the municipals. We didn't know if it was gonna look like that. Longmont is up at our meetings monthly kind of steering us through and giving advice to all the other municipal governments. We're sharing very openly and candidly across the table with each other. I think regionally you have to think about this as a regional problem. There's going to be connecting points. There's going to be citizens and services that that cross boundaries or overlap, and right now we're in a really good place regionally, I think with all the municipals and county talking candidly at the table and trying to keep each other informed so we don't step on each other's toes along the way.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Drew, can't let Mark have the last word.

Drew Davis: No, I can't, Chris. One of the things that comes to mind is that you also can't stay so focused on the big project that you miss the quick wins. I mentioned earlier in the podcast where we talked about the Red Feather Lakes library. They were dying with slow, slow DSL, and we were able to use the county's connections to be able to get them a fiber connection 65 miles northwest of Fort Collins. Larimer County has installed a couple of intelligent transportation weather stations that we've partnered with the school district who had a fiber connection. We've done other things to do that. We're looking at other places where we can get that quick win to show that there is viability in this and that we can improve the services even if it's just a little bit. But we're showing that there is a benefit to having high speed connectivity and making it available to our constituents.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thank you all for sharing your experiences and certainly hope to see great progress, not just from the cities but everywhere. Because everywhere is somewhere.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Drew Davis, Jacob Castillo, and Mark Pfaffinger from Larimer County, Colorado. They recorded the interview at the Mountain Connect conference in Vail. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast, and our other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple podcast, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research: subscribe to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to Arne Huesby, for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 311 of the community broadband bits podcast.