Stranded in Silverton
San Juan County fights for modern technology

The Town of Silverton waits out another long winter. The town hosted a recent Public Utilities Commission meeting on the fact that it is the only county seat in Colorado without a secure telecommunications link. In spite of a contract with the State of Colorado, Qwest Communications has yet to connect Silverton./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Shawna Bethell

Silverton in winter. Sledding on snow-packed roads, nights so quiet you can hear heavy, wet flakes fall on the collar of your jacket, and warm evenings surrounded by friends drinking rum next to a rich copper still.

But Silverton in winter can also be a hard place, where roads get hit with avalanches, accidents cause injury, and the long cold winters can take a toll on the body. Folks who live there are a hardy breed, and they accept the struggle that comes with the paradise, knowing that if they are prepared, they can make it. And one of the things that comes with being prepared in this technological era is having a good connection with the outside world. And to Silvertonians, it’s a necessity worth fighting for.

In mid-December, San Juan County and the Town of Silverton hosted a Public Utilities Commission hearing over a complaint that Qwest did not hold up its end of a state-funded $37 million contract to provide fiber-optic connection to every Colorado county seat. The line was sup

posed to be completed by June 30, 2005, and in the interim Qwest provided a temporary microwave radio link. However as of January 2011, the fiber-optic line is still stalled out 16 miles from Silverton, leaving it the lone county seat without a secure telecommunications link to the outside world.

Pat Swonger is the owner of Vidion Communications and founder of Operation Linkup, a grassroots organization made up of residents, business owners, educators and local government officials. On the first day of the hearing, he described the winter day in 2005 when the microwave line was taken out by an avalanche. “I use Internet and telephone communication extensively in my business and was aware of the outage almost immediately,” he said.

Swonger began calling around town, and it didn’t take long to figure out that the town was completely cut off except for two-way radio communications at the Sheriff’s department. It is this kind of scenario that concerns Daryl Branson, director for the Colorado 911 Resource Center.

“There is only one connection linking the telephone system in Silverton to the rest of the world. In order for Enhanced 911 to work in Silverton, it has to be able to reach databases that exist in locations outside of Silverton.”

Branson went on to explain that if there is a failure of the existing umbilical – the microwave radio link – there will be a failure of the Enhanced 911, and emergency calls will be routed to the San Juan County Sheriff’s office, which is not staffed 24/7.

“If we were only talking about the approximately 550 people who live in Silverton, this would not be that unusual compared to other small communities around the state,” he said. “But it would be unusual during the summer months, when the population can swell to thousands of people.”

The Colorado 911 Resource Center clearly states that it “takes no official position on whether the Commission should find in favor of the County or Qwest.” But Branson did add, “Regardless of the result, it is my hope that a solution is found to bring diverse communications routing to San Juan County.”

This diversity is what the citizens of San Juan County are asking for: a fiber-optic line that is routed separately from the microwave line so if there is another incident like in 2005, there is no interruption in service. This line would also increase the power of the connection, something desperately needed in summer months when the population of Silverton jumps by tens of thousands and demand for emergency services and communication is at its highest.

“It hurts us,” Silverton businessman Pete Maisel said from the stand. “We don’t have what Durango has. We don’t have what Ouray has, and these are communities on either side of us.”

Maisel, owner of the Bent Elbow Restaurant and Hotel, referred to the handicap Silverton businesses must contend with during summer months. As a community trying to increase its economic stability, loss of sales and unhappy guests due to lack of reliable and speedy internet service hurts.

“As you know, we live in an impatient society. I’ve lost customers because of this,” said Wyatt Carmack, owner of Outdoor World.

When the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the lifeblood to many Silverton businesses, glides into town, it literally pours our hungry sightseers and souvenir buyers. However, they are running on a schedule, which means a frenetic chaos hits the stores near the time of departure. When the warning whistle blows, consumers line up to make their last-minute purchases. With credit card terminals all over town running at fever pitch, dropped and delayed transactions create a back up in lines. Many people, fearing missing the train down the mountain, leave merchandise unpurchased at the counter. This is frustrating to business owners who rely on the summer months to withstand the long winter.

So why the delay in fiber-optic services? According to an email from Chuck Ward, Colorado Qwest president, Qwest consistently complies with the need for basic services in Silverton and with every commission service quality rule. “There are no service quality issues in Silverton related to the use of microwave facilities to provide telecommunications services there,” he wrote. “Placing fiber between Silverton and Durango would not improve the excellent service San Juan County currently receives, and it would be economically and technically impractical to do so.”

But according to Corey Bryndal, managing partner of PacketRail, who testified on behalf of Silverton and San Juan County, conversations and meetings with the D&SNG have lead him to believe running a line along the tracks is a feasible option.

He also wrote via e-mail, “Furthermore, we were told that the D&SNG … as a member of the community, wanted to be helpful in any way they could. Since the D&SNG ownership has had fiber-optic telecommunications cables placed along other historic railways that they own in Texas and North Carolina, they were comfortable in exploring the project with us.”

For those not living at 9,318 feet, the fight may seem to be over a technicality that Qwest did not fulfill its responsibility. However, to the residents of Silverton who plan to build a future there, it’s about the right to equal and promised opportunity while living in a place they love. A ruling by the PUC should be forthcoming by late February or early March, but all parties see a long battle ahead. Unfortunately for Qwest, the tenacity it takes for Silvertonians to live in such a place might be the same tenacity that pushes the company to see this challenge through. •



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