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Paonia welcomes high-speed connections

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Photo by Tamie Meck From left, Paonia High School alumni Cody Clawson, Rhett Chesnik and Myles Cumpston connect a home in Paonia to Elevate Fiber broadband internet service for Hotchkiss-based Lightworks.

When Mike and Gretchen King moved to Paonia to start Revolution Brewing, they brought with them an unconventional business model based not so much on profit as on progressive ideas that support the community. It's worked well, said Mike King. The Rev will celebrate its ninth anniversary this May.

When they moved to Paonia, Gretchen telecommuted to her job with University of Alaska creating on-line publications. The job required transfer of large files through the internet, which could take half a day or longer to upload and send, said Mike King. She eventually gave up the job.

Last October, the Rev became the first customer in the North Fork Valley to receive high-speed fiber-optic internet service from Elevate Fiber, a wholly-owned, for-profit subsidiary of Delta-Montrose Electric Association. DMEA is in the process of offering its more than 28,000 co-op customers in Delta, Montrose and Gunnison counties up to 1 gigabit of internet service. In the six months since it launched, more than 4,000 have pre-registered for the service.

DMEA recognized the Rev's role in the community and invited them to be Elevate's first customers in the North Fork area, said King. On Oct. 14 the service was connected and the Rev threw a party, tapping into a keg of Elevate Ale, a seasonal brew using fresh local hops and served in custom Elevate glasses. They offered online demonstrations and door prizes. For every pint sold, 50 cents went to the North Fork Youth Project.

"I think broadband stands out as one of the greatest economy generators in the valley," said King. "It makes moving here feasible for a lot of people."

King said the service increased the speed of the Rev's point of sale system and improves efficiency. It's also good for public relations. If they order a pint, "They get a password."

Broadband is viewed by many as an economic stimulator. It makes streaming of videos a breeze and can benefit schools, hospitals, libraries, businesses and other entities that require the sending and receiving of large amounts of information. It can also enhance public safety and support advancing agricultural technologies.

The project also means jobs in a time when coal mining, once a major provider of high-paying jobs in the North Fork Valley, is in decline.

Elevate contracted with Hotchkiss-based Lightworks Fiber & Consulting to install fiber-to-the-premise hookups. Lightworks co-owner Teresa Neal said that in 2016, Lightworks went from 18 to more than 60 employers, between 80-90 percent of whom are former mine employees. Build-out of Phase I expected to take five to six years, which means steady employment and allows former mine employees to remain in the area, said Neal.

Cody Clawson, Myles Cumpston and Rhett Chesnik graduated from Paonia High School in 2012 and are employed by Lightworks. Clawson and Cumpston are former miners. People are happy to see them coming, said Clawson. "Everyone has been absolutely all about it."

Fiber optics transmit information by sending pulses of light, one of the fastest speeds known, through the fibers. That allows Elevate to offer 100 megabits (100MB) and 1 gigabit (1G) options to its customers. Efforts to bring fiber-optics to all parts of the country have been compared to the Rural Electrification Act of the 1930s, which brought power to even the most rural areas of the country. In 2016, DMEA board member John Gavan, who represents the service area north of the Montrose County line, called DMEA's decision to invest in fiber optics "... the most important one made by DMEA since it was founded in 1938."

Evidence is mounting that "investment in fiber improves the economic performance of a community as well as its quality of life," said Heather Burnett Gold, president and CEO of the Fiber to the Home Council. It can also affect property values. The FTTH council released a study in 2015 showing access to fiber-delivered internet service "boosts home values by up to 3.1 percent."

Heidi Hudek is a social media consultant and manager of The Hive Paonia, a co-working space providing modern technology and workspaces. Its roughly 30 members include software engineers, web designers and web-based business owners, said Hudek. Most of the Hive's members need reliable, fast internet service.

She views the service as providing "more possibility for economic development." Delta County has lost business opportunities due to a lack of high-speed, reliable service, said Hudek. With fiber optics now in the North Fork area, "A person can live a quieter life and still make the money they could make in a big city."

In a recent member survey of the service, web-based business owners Michael Lage with Lage Tech and Teresa Shishim with Yoka Design lauded its benefits. Photographer Ben Lehman said it's a way to attract people from other parts of the state or country "whose work requires only a fast internet connection" to the area. Income made from outside of the valley can be spent in the valley, "helping the town in myriad ways." That translates to a "better quality of life, better education, and a more connected community."

For Paonia-based KVNF Public Radio, "It's about what we're going to do in the future," said general manager Jon Howard. "The potential is tremendous."

The station is developing a satellite studio in Montrose. It's like adding another broadcast studio in Paonia, said Howard, who has worked in broadcasting more than 20 years. "That would not be feasible without broadband." It also allows the station to better serve listeners in its 10,000-square-mile broadcast area, and will improve KVNF's ability to air live events like the Summer Concert Series, which is done via the internet.

For those waiting for the service, it may seem slow to arrive, said Virginia Harmon, manager of member relations at DMEA. Unlike established companies that can provide service right away, "We are physically building a fiber network from the ground up." That includes establishing billing and other systems. "It's a huge undertaking" that is going to take time.

To determine where to provide service first, DMEA divided its service area into roughly 50 zones are based not on traditional boundaries, but on the electrical feeder system for their more than 33,000 meters, said Harmon. Elevate will install fiber in zones that meet pre-registration numbers. Those numbers can be followed in real time at join.elevatefiber.com (visitors can either hover over their zone or enter their address to see how close they are to reaching their goal). "People are watching the site like hawks," said Harmon.

Orchard City and downtown Montrose zones have also met their goals. Pre-registration isn't a commitment to service, but they are seeing decent follow-through, said Harmon. The few that have canceled do are in a contract with another company or they have moved. Cancellations, along with some small shifts in zone boundaries, can affect pre-registration numbers, which can be very frustrating to those following the site, particularly in rural areas, said Harmon.

Harmon said DMEA works to protect the financial interest of all DMEA co-op members. It's not financially feasible or wise to go build infrastructure in a zone that hasn't met its pre-registration goals, she said. Since DMEA is a co-op, and Elevate is a for-profit subsidiary, initially, Elevate fees will cover the cost of infrastructure and services. As the infrastructure is paid for, Elevate's profits could be funneled back to DMEA to offset the cost of providing electricity to its co-op members. Or, as a for-profit subsidiary of DMEA, Elevate's profits could be allocated to customers in the form of capital credits.

Based on customer responses, Elevate plans to provide voice and TV/video service in the future. "We're working on solutions for both of those products," which could be available as early as 2017, said Harmon.

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