Behind the Numbers: Broadband Access

Broadband Makes a Mountain Getaway a Bit Less Isolated

March 7, 2024
Main street in Silverton, with cars parked in front of a line of Victorian-style brick or wood buildings and a hillside of golden aspen trees in the background

If you’re looking to get away from the world, it’s hard to find a better town than Silverton. 

The old mining town sits in a 9,318-foot-high valley of the San Juan Mountains north of Durango. With just 708 people, it hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year who arrive by the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Others comes for the experts-only ski mountain in the winter or bike racing in the summer.

Despite the visitors, Silverton is a remote place. The only roads out of town go over some of the highest and curviest mountain passes in Colorado. 

The isolation that’s so charming for visitors is a challenge for year-round residents. But that started to change last year when townspeople got something they had wanted for years — broadband internet.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we all got wired,” said DeAnne Gallegos, Executive Director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce. She also serves as Public Information Officer for San Juan County. “Internet can be our jobs. It can be how we make our living. It’s access to telehealth. It’s access to mental health.” 

In 2023, a local company called Vero finally finished the fiberoptic line from Durango that a succession of telephone companies had refused for years to build. 

The Colorado Health Access Survey asked about broadband internet access for the first time in 2023. The survey found that 10.8% of rural Coloradans lacked broadband, compared to just 3.8% of people in urban counties. 

In recent years, high-speed internet has become an important social factor in improving health. It opens access to telemedicine and creates economic opportunities. 

But it is not a cure-all for health access in rural Colorado. 

Gallegos recently had a telehealth visit with her nurse practitioner, which saved her the three-hour roundtrip drive to Montrose. However, she still had to go to Montrose to pick up her prescription, because there’s no pharmacy in Silverton.

Most health and social services still have to be delivered in-person. Broadband can help, but Gallegos said the real improvements have come from the county public health agency’s efforts to bring in mobile services for COVID-19 vaccines, mammograms, grocery sales, driver’s licenses, tax preparation, and twice-weekly nurse clinics.

Broadband is changing Silverton in other ways too.

The town council now livestreams its meetings, which Gallegos said is good for democracy and open government. People can make good-quality video calls, which has brought a new type of resident to town — the telecommuter. These newcomers help the town grow, but housing prices are getting higher, too.

High-speed internet also brings intangible changes. A visit to Silverton used to mean a screen-free day, thanks to the lousy bandwidth. There’s no cell service at all on the three-hour train ride from Durango.

Now smartphones will compete for attention with the alpine scenery for tourists and residents alike.

Broadband has brought positive changes to Silverton’s social life, economy, and democratic process, Gallegos said. But it hasn’t yet changed the town’s essence.

“We’ve never built our lives around the internet or the wired world,” Gallegos said.

"We’ve never built our lives around the internet or the wired world."