Montezuma County’s Connect 4 Broadband Initiative has chosen two private partners for its plan to bring more reliable internet to the county.
The group sent out a request for proposal in early January, looking for companies that would be willing to partner with local governments to provide high-speed internet to all of Montezuma County. After the deadline for responses was extended from Feb. 14 to the end of the month, five companies submitted proposals. The Montezuma County Board of Commissioners voted March 6 to approve a joint submission from Data Safe Services, a local company co-owned by Cortez general services director Rick A. Smith, and the Durango-based FastTrack Communications, paving the way for Connect 4 to move forward with the broadband plan.
Foresite Wireless, Farmers Telephone, Mammoth Networks and ZumaCom also responded to the request for proposals. Connect 4 spokeswoman Chelsea Jones said she was pleasantly surprised by the number of companies that responded, and by how quickly the commissioners approved Data Safe and FastTrack’s proposal.
“I knew they were going to discuss it, but I didn’t know it was a decision,” she said. “In my history with the commissioners, I’ve seen them take a while for a decision, so I was kind of surprised. It was like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s go forward.’”
The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the proposal after a presentation by the county’s information technology director, Jim McClain, and a discussion with two of DataSafe’s owners, Rick K. Smith and Tom Maley.
Connect 4 still plans to meet with representatives of the two companies and go over the submitted proposals before they make a final decision on how to move forward with the public-private partnership. The RFP asked companies to submit a strategy for how they would help Connect 4 provide high-speed internet to all communities in the county at a competitive price, but left the cost and other details of such a plan up to the respondents.
Maley attended a meeting of the Montezuma Community Economic Development Association on Tuesday to talk about the partnership. He mentioned his and the other Data Safe owners’ long experience with fiber, including Rick K. Smith’s role in founding the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments, which has been trying to get more reliable internet for the region since 2010. Maley also addressed the issue of the county government hiring a city government employee’s company.
“There’s no conflict of interest,” he said. “There never has been, there never will be at all.”
He said Rick A. Smith’s knowledge of the county’s existing fiber infrastructure would benefit the broadband project, although he added that Rick K. Smith would be the “face” of the company in all its dealings with Connect 4.
Both the city of Cortez and the Montezuma County government have contracted with Data Safe in the past to provide their IT infrastructure. FastTrack has fewer local ties, but the Cortez-based Empire Electric Association does have 25 percent ownership in it.
Empire offered to pay for the next step in the broadband plan, which is a survey to get feedback from the community on their internet habits. A printed version went out to Empire customers with their electric bills at the beginning of March, while an online version went up on the MCEDA website on March 10. Jones said there had been 14 responses to the online version as of Tuesday, while Clint Rapier, of Empire, said he had seen 10 people turn in their responses in person. Customers who complete the survey before the end of May will be entered into a drawing for a $200 Empire gift card to be used for their electric bills.
The survey, which is an updated version of the one Connect 4 made available in 2016 as part of an earlier broadband plan, consists of about 16 questions about county residents’ internet usage, such as whether they’re satisfied with their current speeds, whether they see the internet as a necessity or just entertainment and how much they would be willing to pay for a faster connection. Early drafts of the new survey removed a question from the 2016 version about whether county residents would support a sales tax to pay for faster internet, but the final draft includes it.
Jones said early responses to the survey have been positive. Connect 4 will release more information to the public about the broadband plan after their meeting at the end of the month, she said, but in the meantime many of their decisions will depend on what they hear from county residents.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what this (survey) does,” she said. “Already we’re getting very diverse answers, which is fabulous.”