Who would have dreamed an internet war could erupt in rural Delta County?

For years, a company called TDS provided residents with shoddy phone and internet service on copper wires. Seeing an opening two years ago, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association coop started an independent company, Elevate, to provide internet and phone service on its fiber-optic lines.

Rapidly, Elevate signed up 60 percent of Paonia’s households. Elevate boasted rates cheaper than TDS, charges no rent for its modem, and demands no long-term subscription. The beautiful part is that it’s 25 times faster.

But TDS hangs on, flogging a telecom system based on Alexander Graham Bell technology. Its copper systems are today’s dinosaurs.

Flexing serious Denver political muscle to stay alive, TDS recently persuaded the Colorado Broadband Deployment Board to take back a grant that would have gone to Elevate to bring high-speed internet to Rogers Mesa outside the town of Hotchkiss.

That grant for $961,383 would have been matched dollar for dollar by DMEA’s Elevate. The Denver District Court (docket no. 2019CV3145) is now hearing the case, based on a claim from TDS that, in the next two years, it will build in the same place targeted by Elevate using federal money allocated for another location.

Last Feb. 26, the state’s Broadband Deployment Board voted 7-3 against TDS. But before the meeting was over, three members left the room, which also left the board without a quorum. A vote was rescheduled for March 8. At that meeting, Broadband Board members flip-flopped and DMEA’s grant was revoked.

This was a startling development for DMEA. It had been snagging grants and building out its system, serving 16,000 of its 33,000 rate-payers in less than two years.

Meanwhile, TDS also had another ace up its sleeve. Last January, State Sen. and Democratic Majority Whip Kerry Donovan introduced a six-page bill, SB-19-107, which would have streamlined rights of way for broadband installation. This would have helped rural electric cooperatives across the state, including La Plata’s Fast Track and DMEA, which faces delays when crossing properties.

But by April 19, the bill was rewritten to 20 pages. No longer a streamline, it was a death by myriad requirements. The 16-page final bill, signed by Gov. Jared Polis June 6, contains unnecessary regulations for rural electric coops that utilize rights of way they’ve had for 80-plus years. Donovan did not respond to my questions about why her bill changed direction so drastically.

Meanwhile, though Polis says he wants to expand broadband in rural areas, he’s shown no interest in changing the Broadband Deployment Board, which is made up of people like the president of AT&T Colorado.

On June 6, I wrote a letter to the Delta County Independent asking if TDS deserved grants and could be relied upon to build an efficient Internet service. Quick replies all said no: Rogers Mesa resident Sarah Marshall told me she routinely got a discount on her TDS bill because speeds never lived up to her contract.

Dan Ihnot, another resident, said his main beef was cost. At his former house he used to pay $49.95 per month for Elevate and now pays $88 to TDS, with $8 going for modem rental. I’ve checked: TDS modems are old tech, out of production and worth $30 if you can find one. Other beefs about TDS were long wait times for service that wasn’t always competent.

But what I heard from more than one person could be summed up this way: “TDS left us for dead years ago and now they’re playing sore loser. Blocking Elevate is just TDS acting full of spite.”

TDS uses its friends on the Broadband Deployment Board to block a less expensive, superior service from Elevate that is desperately needed, especially in hard hit Delta County. What follows Elevate’s fast internet is economic diversity: Paonia has attracted all manner of new small businesses due to fiber.

There are ways to fight back against TDS as it seeks to hold Delta County hostage. Use speedtest.net and then email The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, dora_puc_complaints@state.co.us with promised speed compared to what your speed test demonstrates. Also, contact the FCC’s consumer complaint division with your results. TDS routinely advertises 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload — federal minimums for broadband — but hits the mark rarely. That doesn’t stop them from accepting $1.7 million of federal money annually for Colorado broadband.

I asked Kent Blackwell, Elevate and DMEA’s Chief Technology Officer, whether DMEA would abandon certain parts of their geographic area if TDS kept blocking Broadband Deployment grants. “We’ll build out the system,” he said. “TDS may slow us down, but we’ll build it.”

To my mind, competition is what makes capitalism work. What’s happening in this situation is crony capitalism, and it isn’t fair or useful to the people of Delta County.

Dave Marston grew up in Delta County and owns commercial property in both Paonia and Hotchkiss. He lives in New York City.

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