A new blazing fast internet connection in Paonia is making it easier for Americans who live far from Colorado to order cowboy hats that make them look like their favorite Western movie stars.
"I just (made a hat from), oh, what is the Kevin Costner movie … Open Range," said hatmaker Charles Rutledge as he used steam to help shape a new fur hat at his shop in downtown Paonia. "A guy came in and said, 'I've got to have that hat!' And we made it for him."
Using Skype and other online applications, Rutledge is able to consult with customers on the custom design of a hat. He uses the sage and red dirt he finds near his shop in some of the designs.
He's also shipping them across the country from a new online store. He said without the new high-speed internet connection he gets from Elevate, it would be much more difficult for his business to survive in a place like Paonia.
"The problem with Paonia is we have a few good months of tourism in the summer, but because we don't have a resort, we do not have much winter business; it's very hard to survive here," he said.
Mark Kurtz, of the Delta Montrose Electric Association, took notice of that trend. He said when the electric co-op tapped into the broadband business about four years ago, one of the first priorities was to bring faster service to Paonia.
"For economic development, there were just very few opportunities up there," he said. "You could not telecommute out of your home. And part of the driver we looked at up there as well is the coal mine started to close in Paonia, and when that happened, they had to reinvent themselves as a business community. And without high-speed internet, that's impossible."
Kurtz said contractors who helped deploy the new fiber on the broadband project hired some of the miners who found themselves in need of a new job. He said they were re-trained to install the fiber.
Delta Montrose Electric Association launched a new service called Elevate, which offers download speeds of 100 megabits per second for $50 a month. That's four times faster than the state's minimum threshold for what it considers to be high-speed internet.
Kurtz said the project, which has brought high-speed internet to thousands of residents in rural parts of Delta County, has been the most meaningful thing the electric co-op has done since it first started bringing electricity to homes 80 years ago.
"It's impactful," he said. "You know it's not about just being able to stream Netflix as I like to say. It's a whole lot more about allowing people to live a modern lifestyle and more importantly the economic development aspect of helping to pick up an area that has traditionally had some challenges on the Western Slope and putting them on par with folks in city like Denver."
But Kurtz said the mission is not accomplished. There are reports the state's rural broadband grant fund, which Elevate has used to help build its network, is going to get smaller and more competitive in the coming years.
And he said there are many ranches and more rural homes outside of towns like Paonia that are still waiting to get connected.
"Things like precision agriculture are becoming much more important than they used to be. Very few people drive their tractors anymore. GPS drives their tractors," he said.
And those new agricultural machines need broadband to be effective. But Kurtz said it is more expensive to get these rural areas connected because homes can be one to two miles apart.
"It's incredibly important that the funding remain in place," he said. "When you get out into rural areas, just in good round numbers, when we start to move two or three miles outside of a community, our costs increase six-fold compared to what we are able to do inside a township.
"This is not mission accomplished. We're maybe right now just starting to scratch the surface of what is required to get this all the way across Colorado, corner to corner. It's incredibly important to all of rural Colorado."
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.