Monday, October 22, 2018

Utility brings fiber-optic jobs to struggling Colo. coal county

Delta County, Colorado (Wikipedia map)
A electric utility in western Colorado is bringing better internet connection and jobs to a down-on-its-luck Delta County, population 30,000. Coal mines once employed thousands in Western Colorado, but about 800 miners were laid off in 2014-16 when two of the three mines in the area shut down.

Eric and Teresa Neal wanted to help. "Then their fledgling company, Lightworks, began bidding — and winning — contracts offered by the local electric utility that was looking to expand broadband to thousands of homes and businesses," Kirk Siegler reports for NPR. "Coal was going away and broadband was key. After all, how does a small town compete in today's economy without good access to the internet?"

In their barn, the Neals have taught more than 80 former miners about how fiber-optic cable works and how to lay and splice it. Johnny Olivas told Siegler during a break, "I didn't know anything about fiber optic, but you catch on pretty quick. It's a hell of a lot easier than coal mining."

The result of the Neals' efforts? Delta County's population isn't declining for the first time in years. "The fiber optics has pretty much saved this valley," retired miner Rob Clements told Siegler. The jobs don't pay as well as the old coal jobs, but they provide benefits and have been enough to keep people in the county. The jobs and the improved internet speed are also attracting urbanites who want to live in a small town (the county seat is Delta) and work remotely, Siegler reports.

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