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Orchard City seeks answers on opt-out question

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The Orchard City Town Board is hoping to get some questions answered soon about the Region 10 broadband fiberoptic cable network project. At the trustees' Aug. 12 meeting, concerns about potential pitfalls of the project were aired when supporters advised the board on allowing the town to enter the Internet service provider business.

There are many different voices speaking authoritatively about the complex proposed $9.9 million, publicly funded, Region 10 project, but they are also speaking guardedly in general terms and not always in agreement. Six of those voices were at the Orchard City trustee meeting last week, but none were from Region 10.

There were three representatives from Delta County Economic Development (DCED) and a Delta County commissioner. Also there were two staff engineers from Delta Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) who came to address a separate issue of the fiberoptic network proposal.

But town trustee questions about the broadband project remained unanswered. A special board meeting was called to meet with Region 10 director Michelle Haynes which it was hoped would occur this week.

Supporters of the Region 10 plan, including the Delta County Commissioners, want Orchard City and other local governments to place a special question on the Nov. 3 ballot. It would ask permission from voters to "opt out" from state prohibitions against entering the Internet service provider (ISP) business. As an ISP, a local government could sell Internet service and content to consumers.

Following the Nov. 5 elections last year, The Washington Post reported, "Voters in seven cities and counties in Colorado voted Tuesday to free their local governments to offer Internet service.

"The votes marked a defeat for big, traditional Internet service providers such as Comcast that have successfully maneuvered to inject limits on municipal broadband into state regulations over the last decade. Now cities are figuring out ways to push back, including wiggling out from under laws the industry helped put in place."

Now, supporters of the Region 10 plan want Delta County and its municipalities to do the same thing. County Commissioner Bruce Hovde said that doing so "would not obligate Orchard City in any way."

But Mayor Don Suppes noted the possibility of what he termed "potential quasi-blackmail." Saying he had "no doubt" that town voters would choose to opt out, he also speculated that town government could eventually be forced into the business of providing Internet service if the current restriction against it is removed.

Suppes also said he wants clarification on the idea of the town paying to bring fiberoptic cable to Orchard City and then DMEA providing the "last mile" Internet service from that location. Suppes said he wants to know more about the $5.2 million dollar grant "and what this idea would cost" the town.

Trustee Beverly Moore said, "I see pros and cons, but I don't see the benefits."

The director of DCED, Trish Thibido, told the town board that opting-out "would give Orchard City options to use public funds" and other assets to extend a fiberoptic network.

Trustee Toni Chatto asked Thibido if she meant "public funds by taxation?"

Thibido replied, "Tax dollars."

County Commissioner Bruce Hovde corrected that reply. He explained opting out would not approve an increase in taxes. He said it would allow current public assets, including taxes, to be used for fiberoptic networks. Any new additional taxes would have to be approved by voters.

"There are many variables," Suppes observed and suggested, "What if we put off a decision until the April (municipal election) ballot? I am concerned about pressure from outside forces."

Thibido cited reasons for Orchard City voters to approve an opt-out question. She spoke in general terms that having voters decide to "opt out" would:

• "Leave options open;

• "Put the community in the best possible position;

• "It is important not to have (the ISP prohibition) as a limiting factor;"

• It would "keep options open for broadband development;

• It would be "a tool and an option for the community to use;" and

• "We would want to have as many tools available as possible."

Thibido noted that the Region 10 plan calls for a two-year build out of the "middle-mile" portion. This would bring fiberoptic cable to some institutions, but not to private consumers or businesses. Current ideas call for Internet service from the fiberoptic system to private homes and businesses to be provided by commercial ISPs, by DMEA, or by local governments.

Hovde told the Orchard City trustees that opting out "gives flexibility." He added that the county commissioners are encouraging communities to "opt out."

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