Consultant: County and towns might have to help build better broadband network

PINEDALE – Good news, Sublette County – your Internet service is not the worst in the nation.

That distinction goes to a Saguache County, Colorado, in one recent telecommunications study.

But the very fact that some computer users in the county might have wondered if they were in the running speaks megabytes about the situation in Sublette County, where a consultant says nearly half the “living locations” are underserved, the county is fiber-poor even where it has fiber, and even federal subsidies may not be enough to bring the county up to speed – additional money from the county and the towns might be necessary.

All that is according to Joseph Sharkey, a consultant who is doing a broadband assessment for Sublette County and its towns and coming up with some strategies for improvement.

The commission listened to Sharkey’s update on his ongoing work for Sublette County but took no action. The part of the presentation that might have given commissioners the most to think about was Sharkey’s discussion of three options, one of which projects that the county and the towns might have to kick in as much as $11 million in two different periods to improve broadband access in the county.

Sharkey told the Sublette County Commission at its Sept. 5 meeting that currently about 46 percent of Sublette living locations – points to which broadband services could be delivered – are underserved and therefore eligible for what the Federal Communications Commission calls “CAF support” – broadband support from its Connect America Fund.

Sharkey told county commissioners and some Pinedale town officials who attended the meeting that the FCC is in the process of developing the final plans for what’s called the CAF II auction, probably to be held in 2018.

Wyoming Eligible Telecom Carriers, or ETCs, will be eligible for $23 million a year for 10 years, or $231 million total. They would get the money by bidding to provide service to the underserved areas.

In Sublette County, ETCs would be eligible for $2.99 million annually over the 10-year period, or $29.9 million total.

However, only ETCs with a strong technical and financial background will qualify as bidders, which narrows the field, Sharkey said; and some eligible locations might not be bid at all due to the extreme cost to build broadband systems in those areas.

Sharkey said even where Sublette County already has fiber optic facilities, they are limited – 12 or 24 fibers, with six or more in use in each section. Sharkey said he obtained that information from sources other than CenturyLink. That leaves the county in a fiber-poor position, even if all the available fiber could be used.

In a hasty presentation that covered a lot of ground, Sharkey presented three possible options: develop a strategy coordinated with one or more independent service providers; provide some financial support and watch continued uncoordinated wireless competition if CenturyLink applies for CAF II funding; or do nothing and let the situation continue as is, with CenturyLink providing service and wireless service providers competing only in high-population areas such as Pinedale.

If Sublette County follows chooses the first option of working with one or more independent service providers on a strategy, Sharkey suggests Sublette County and its towns might need to provide $5.5 million to $6.5 million of infrastructure in the first two years, with potentially another $3.5 million to $4.5 million in later years. Conceivably, that might total as much as $11 million.

But Sharkey seemed to suggest that would be the way to go.

“Good things aren’t going to happen unless some additional funding comes in besides the CAF funding,” Sharkey said immediately after discussing those numbers.

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