Broadband construction starts in Taos

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Kit Carson Electric Cooperative has been given the green light to begin construction of its $64 million broadband project, which promises to bring high-speed Internet to every home and business now served by the co-op.

If all goes to plan, fiber-optic cable will be installed along every inch of the co-op’s existing electric system — which covers 3,000 square miles and took 70 years to build — in 2 1/2 years. Crews are scheduled to be in the field starting Thursday (June 21).

Officials say orchestrating the massive project is going to require extensive coordination among the co-op, the project’s construction manager, the materials manager, local excavation crews, the county, municipalities and thousands of residents and business owners.

While the whirlwind construction phase is expected to include road closures, service interruptions and other inconveniences for residents, proponents of the project believe the long-term benefits of high-speed Internet will allow Taos to compete in an increasingly digitized world.

The fiber-optic system is expected to improve access speeds while vastly reducing the cost. Co-op CEO Luís Reyes said broadband would be “lit up” area-by-area as work progresses, and he hoped consumers would have a choice of several Internet providers once the new network is online.

The co-op was trumpeting the start of construction this week, which follows extensive delays. Reyes said the project is several months behind schedule because federal agencies were trying to determine whether environmental studies would be needed. The Forest Service recently issued a request for public comment on approving work on the co-op’s current right-of-way.

Despite the pushed-back start date, the deadline for completion is still February 2015.

Aside from faster Internet, the project — funded with federal stimulus money — is meant to be a shot in the arm to the economy. The co-op says 300 jobs will be created through the project, and local contractors are champing at the bit to start work and catch a piece of the $64 million windfall.

Workers will be paid according to federal wage standards, which range from $18.57 an hour for equipment operators to $34.25 for cable splicers.

Representatives from several construction companies attended a contractor’s meeting at the co-op Friday (June 15) to get a briefing on the project. The co-op fought for a clause in the construction contract requiring that 90 percent of the labor force be from the area, unless certain skill sets cannot be found here.

Reyes said Taoseños have the equipment and expertise to fill many roles, but cable splicers and linemen have been harder to find in the local labor pool.

At Friday’s meeting, Thomas Kelley, who works for construction manager TCS Communications, laid out the specifics of what was expected of crews: All materials must be requested 48 hours in advance and meticulously accounted for at the job site. All employees must be drug-tested, pass a background check and have valid immigration status. All employee hours must be tracked, down to the specific task, and wages must be posted inside work vehicles.

Nine local firms have so far signed contracts with TCS to do work on the project. Kelley told a roomful of contractors Friday his company planned to start with those nine companies and decide whether to bring on additional crews if there is enough work to go around. “We’re going to start slow,” Kelley said.

Since the economy soured, local construction has taken a big hit; the possibility of months of steady work is welcome news for those companies who are on board. “When do we get started?” said Michael Silva, a Taos town councilor and owner of Silva’s Excavation, at the conclusion of the Friday meeting.

Of the $64 million, $27 million will go to underground construction; $37 million will be for overhead work.

For months, crews have been replacing several utility poles across the co-op’s service area. Reyes said the replacements are part of a system upgrade that will accommodate fiber-optic lines, though he said that work is not being funded with the broadband grant/loan.

About 900 miles of the broadband project will be buried in places where the electric lines are underground. Spotters from the co-op, and from telecommunications providers Comcast and Century Link, will have to locate and mark underground lines before trenches are dug.

At the contractors meeting, Reyes expressed some concerns about the responsiveness of Comcast and Century Link crews. “They’re spotting for us, and we’re going to be their direct competitor,” Reyes said.

A representative of the Public Regulation Commission, which regulates the 811 “call before you dig” hotline, said the agency has been “cracking the whip” on companies to promptly spot buried lines for this project.

Town of Taos Public Works Director Francisco “French” Espinoza was at the contractors meeting Friday. Espinoza said afterward he didn’t know what to expect when work began, but he thought the project might create “a mess.” “That’s the first meeting that I’ve attended, and I haven’t even seen any plans or any of that,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza stressed the importance of communication between the town and those doing underground work. He wants to know where work will be done and when, and what road closures will be required.

Espinoza said upgrades done by other companies in recent years led to damage to the town’s service lines, some of which were repaired by the company with duct tape. Water and sewer lines are four feet underground, while the fiber-optic cable is to be buried at two feet.

Espinoza said the town will likely ask for a performance bond from TCS in case lines are breached and repairs need to be made. Other municipalities have suggested they will do the same. Reyes said project representatives would notify property owners of upcoming work.

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