Kindergartner Seamus Malia completes an assignment in computer class Thursday morning at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Steamboat Springs School District is one of 29 districts in Colorado that the EAGLE-Net project has committed to reach with expanded broadband access.

Photo by John F. Russell

Kindergartner Seamus Malia completes an assignment in computer class Thursday morning at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Steamboat Springs School District is one of 29 districts in Colorado that the EAGLE-Net project has committed to reach with expanded broadband access.

Northwest Colorado waits for expansion of EAGLE-Net broadband project

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— On May 3, EAGLE-Net President Mike Ryan acknowledged that the broadband project that promised to link all the school districts in Colorado has less than $8 million left from more than $100 million in federal funds.

Less than half of the network is complete.

The project that was funded through the $7.2 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program released a call for network operators Tuesday that asks for an $8 million upfront capital investment “that will be used toward completing the network consistent with the EAGLE-Net’s mission, building out customer connections and other working capital requirements.”

It’s unclear how much additional financing EAGLE-Net will need and whether the rural communities that were supposed to be the targets of expanded broadband access ever reap the promised benefits.

Steamboat Springs and Moffat County are among 29 school districts listed as priority projects that should be started during 2013.

EAGLE-Net has been plagued with accusations of overbuilding in already served communities, wasteful spending, abuse and graft.

The mismanagement of the project culminated in its suspension by the National Telecommunications and Information Association earlier this year after its plans were changed without approval.

Its suspension was lifted last week, right before Ryan stopped in Southwest Colorado to assuage fears about the network.

The city of Silverton estimates its project alone would cost about $8 million, according to The Denver Post.

The call for a third-party operator of the network also hinted at additional private funds for further expansion, and the NTIA stated that private financing would be necessary to complete projects already scheduled.

EAGLE-Net spokeswoman Gretchen Dirks offered the following statement:

“Steamboat Springs RE-2 School District is one of the 29 school districts which is budgeted to be connected in 2013 through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant received by EAGLE-Net Alliance. Current build schedules are forthcoming."

Moffat County School District Technology Director Marlene Knez said that during a meeting with a local EAGLE-Net representative Wednesday, she was told the timetable would be released soon. The original installation date EAGLE-Net gave for the network was July 2012, Knez said.

Moffat County School District currently has a DS3 connection, Knez said. That type of connection can deliver speeds as fast as 45 megabits per second. Knez said she initially talked to EAGLE-Net about speeds in the range of a gigabit per second.

The South Routt and Hayden school districts have joined with Steamboat in negotiating with EAGLE-Net, and Technology Director Tim Miles has organized the effort.

Miles did not return multiple requests for comment.

Eric Dose, a network engineer who works in the South Routt School District, said that up until last year, the district was working with speeds of about 10 mbps.

“Basically, what it came down to was our Internet connectivity was not up to par,” Dose said. Classrooms were not able to stream YouTube videos, multiple students couldn’t access online coursework simultaneously and even a teacher checking his or her email could derail a computer lab.

Zirkel Wireless, a local Internet service provider, donated connectivity to South Routt for this year, increasing speeds at schools as fast as 100 mbps. Zirkel Wireless President Alan Belvo said Thursday that the connection was drawing about 80 mbps that morning.

After Zirkel’s donation runs out, Dose said, the district’s long-term hope still is for EAGLE-Net to be available in the area.

Whether or not EAGLE-Net is ready, Moffat County School District plans to go through the bid process for better connectivity, according to Knez. She said CenturyLink recently increased its offerings in the area and other providers might be able to compete, as well.

“We hope to upgrade bandwidth because now, we have options,” Knez said.

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com

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