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Pitkin County pursues better internet service through ballot question

Oct 18, 2015

A Pitkin County ballot question about broadband internet is similar to what voters in several Colorado jurisdictions will see this fall. Many counties, municipalities and school districts are requesting to opt out of a state law.
Credit Creative Commons/Flickr/Marcie Casas

One question on the fall ballot asks Pitkin County voters to opt out of a state law, so better broadband service can be explored. Right now, many rural enclaves have poor service or no internet connection at all. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

In March, Pitkin County commissioners heard from residents in Old Snowmass about how a poor internet connection affects them. Elise Wright was taking college courses online.

"I have had incredible difficulty uploading these assignments. I have to turn these things in via the internet and that has proven extremely challenging, to the extent that I have a failing grade in one of my classes."

The county surveyed citizens and did a needs assessment before drawing up a ballot question. Kara Silbernagel of the county, has been working on the effort.

"The needs assessment really showed that, all throughout (the valley), whether people have adequate service or no service at all, it’s not meeting the expectations of the citizens."

Residents said they wanted internet service to be more available, reliable and affordable. Now the county’s exploring what options are out there. But when it comes to putting a shovel in the ground to either build or utilize existing infrastructure, the county’s hands are tied.

"At a certain point, we, as well as many other communities, run into a roadblock known as Senate Bill 152," says Rachel Richards, Pitkin County commissioner.

She's advocating for passage of Question 1A. A majority “yes” vote would mean the county could opt out of the state law legislators passed in 2005.

"It was highly favorable to the industry and prohibited what they were calling competition or involvement by local government bodies."

The law protects telecom firms by keeping local governments out of the telecommunications business.

An opt-out would mean the county could pursue grants and attract business deals with private companies so they could do things like lay fiber optic line. Another option is to use existing infrastructure. But, the law currently prohibits the county from using its eight mountaintop towers. Again, Kara Silbernagel.

"They could put an antenna up on those towers and then relay a signal to the houses, like those in the Frying Pan area, where there’s a tower. So it could be feasible for the private sector to want to use those towers," she says.

The county is joined by others in going to the voters to opt out of the law.

"We are not alone," says Rachel Richards. "Other counties pursuing it this year are Archuleta, Clear Creek, Delta, Gilpin, Gunnison, etc."

Nearly 40 counties, municipalities and school districts have similar ballot questions, according to KUNC. Colorado Mountain College is one of them. It’s asking voters systemwide to allow the school to be free of Senate Bill 152.