St. Elmo satellite dish

The Exede dish that served the St. Elmo General Store in 2017 is mounted on a shed behind the store. That connectivity has revitalized one of Colorado’s most famous ghost towns. Now, years of effort have brought a grant to bring fiber optic internet to town.

St. Elmo, the small community at the top of Chalk Creek Canyon, attracts visitors every year for its chipmunks, hummingbirds and its carefully-preserved appearance – a time capsule from a point in American history roughly contemporaneous with Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent lightbulb.

St. Elmo might still look the same, but the world around it has changed. And, thanks to a state broadband deployment grant awarded to Colorado Central Telecom, St. Elmo is in the process of getting fiber-optic internet connected to most of its homes.

“It’s a 2-year phased process, and for us actually its our third go at this one,” said Chip White, the vice-president of CCT. Fiber will reach the town by “going down the county road to going down the Sangre de Cristo Electric easement all the way from Buena Vista to an infrastructure starting point at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, then we go from that point all the way over their utility poles all the way into St. Elmo.”

White said “the state has what’s called the Mineral Grant Trust, where they have money from the energy industry that they can put into a pool and basically grant out to people like us in areas that we have identified have a lack of capability. The only thing that’s available in Chalk Creek right now is literally phone connections from the 40’s and power. There’s nothing else that’s been done up there.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that homeowners in St. Elmo will be required to get internet access. But for those that want it, the price will be similar to what CCT offers in Buena Vista, because the infrastructure has already been laid.

This is just one part of the move to expand internet infrastructure into rural Chaffee County, an effort that has become more important as more prospective homebuyers look to the mountains as a place where they can work from home.

“We have people coming here and one of the first questions they ask is ‘How’s the internet,’ and so far we’ve been able to get passing grades,” said Wendell Pryor, the executive director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation. “People love it here, and when they’re able to find good internet, that makes it even more exciting.”

Pryor said that the internet situation has improved in Chaffee County since 2017.

In that year, wildland fires in La Veta caused damage to internet lines in far southern Colorado, causing a multi-day service outage in Buena Vista that highlighted the need for redundancy in internet networks.

“I think in general you can say that along with Colorado Central Telecom, which reaches the more difficult areas, we’ve seen upgrades from Charter/Spectrum,” Pryor said. “I know that (CenturyLink) has improved their redundancy in town. On the whole, you’d have to conclude that since 2017 it’s gotten better, to accommodate this influx of remote workers we’ve got now as a result of COVID-19.”

During the repaving of Cottonwood Pass, which began in 2017 and stretched through to its official grand re-opening last year, CenturyLink laid fiber-optic cable under the road, completing a long-desired loop bringing infrastructural redundancy – and therefore greater reliability – to the southern Western Slope.

At the same time in response to an uptick in customers, CCT was upgrading its routers and switches at the Broadband Hotel at 910 15th street in Denver, where Colorado connects to the World Wide Web.

“It’s a combination of growing and becoming stable,” said Ralph Abrams, Colorado Central Telecom’s CEO.

CCT is also working to grow the area’s infrastructure by reaching out to housing developments. Pryor said that the company is currently working with 15 subdivisions on laying fiber-optic cable.

“What we have been tracking in both Lake and Chaffee County is new subdivisions that have been brought into the public approval process either by the city of Salida or the county of Chaffee, depending on area of course. As these plans move forward, we try to reach out to the developers,” White said.

Pryor said “I think it continues to get better, and I think we’re rising to meet the challenge.”

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