Fiber-optic broadband brings jobs, access to hard-hit coal country

By Jean Lotus
Fiber-optic broadband brings jobs, access to hard-hit coal country
Displaced coal miners in Colorado's North Fork Valley are finding new careers as fiber optic installers. Photo courtesy of Lightworks Fiber and Consulting

DENVER, March 31 (UPI) -- Installing fiber-optic broadband service in rural areas is helping to retrain coal miners and diversify the economies of some economically depressed U.S. communities.

Colorado's North Fork Valley, about 275 miles southwest of Denver, has been a coal-mining area for 150 years. In the valley, a local fiber-optic company has trained and employed some 80 former coal miners as part of an initiative to bring 1 gigabit-per-second Internet service to the region.


"These coal miners have a work ethic like you cannot believe," said Teresa Neal, co-owner of Hotchkiss, Colo.,-based Lightworks Fiber and Consulting, the hiring firm. "They are used to shift work, they're OK on travel, it all seems to work out." Neal's husband and company co-owner, Eric, is a former miner.

Most ex-miners in the area, like Andy Carver, 38, come from multi-generation mining families. Carver worked in the local coal mines for a decade.


"I lived through more than one layoff in the mines. This is a more stable income for my family," Carver said of the fiber-optics job. "I haven't had one day that I thought, 'Man I wish I could go back to a coal mine and work there.'"

As coal jobs disappeared in the valley, some miners relocated to other mining regions. It didn't always work out.

Headed to Utah

Garrett Pietak, 34, followed mining work to Richfield, Utah, when the Bowie Resources mine in Delta County closed in 2016.

Pietak, who mined coal since high school, had signed a two-year contract and moved his wife and two children, he said.

"I kinda hated it there," Pietak said. "We found ourselves coming home [to Colorado] every chance we got. Following coal mining and making all the money in the world wasn't worth living in a place that wasn't home to us."

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Pietak went from working underground to climbing utility poles to install aerial fiber-optic cable.

"Lightworks is as close to coal mining as you can get in the real world, because it's still fun, and [it has] a good group of people who get things done while still having a good time," Pietak said.


"I do make less money, but it just means you don't go on the extravagant trips anymore. Downgrading our style of living wasn't that big of a change for us," he said.

Some longtime miners had to retool their expectations to adapt to a different industry.

"The pay scale isn't an instant gratification like coal mining," said Jeff Wilson, 41, Lightworks' project manager. Wilson worked in the Colorado western coal mines for 16 years, as did his father and grandfather.

"But there's good money in telecom, as well. People have to work from home now with this coronavirus. They need this kind of Internet," Wilson said. "It's a secure career when you get settled in. You have to give [telecom] an honest shot."

900 jobs lost

Some 900 miners lost their jobs in the North Fork Valley after an underground fire in the Elk Creek Mine led to its closure 2013. That was followed by the shuttering of the Bowie Mine three years later.

"It was a mini-earthquake in this area to lose that many jobs when we only have 30,000 people," said Brad Harding, 44, a fifth-generation resident, part-time coal miner and president of a community bank. "It sent shock waves through the community."


Harding and other locals pushed the local rural electric cooperative to invest in the high-speed broadband, hoping that it would attract businesses and people who wanted to live in a picturesque mountain community. The cost, in the tens of millions of dollars, was reduced somewhat by national and state grants.

"The electrical co-op was nervous to go into that field to get fiber to the home," Harding said. The expense and new business model was considered a risk, he said. "But they've already got 7,200 customers in four years," Harding said.

High-speed Internet has helped put the area on the map, said Elyse Casselberry, director of the Delta County Community and Economic Development Department.

"We're seeing a growth in entrepreneurship and retirees moving in, which is importing wealth. People are moving here who are tired of Denver traffic and can bring their job with them," Casselberry said. "When the coal mines closed, everybody agreed that any job was a benefit. If we grow one job at a time, we grow one job at a time."

Electric co-ops grow

In Appalachia, electric co-ops also are expanding broadband service to rural coal country with the help of grant funding. Last year, seven electric cooperatives in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee won nearly $10 million in federal grants to build or expand rural fiber-optic networks.


"Broadband is very expensive," said Tracy Warren, communications manager for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. "But local businesses can't grow without it."

No single industry can replace coal in a rural area that was formerly centered on extraction, said Ben Alexander, a Montana-based senior program adviser at Resources Legacy Fund, a non-profit policy group that studies community resiliency.

"Energy-producing communities have faced the most difficult economic transitions," he said, adding that some rural communities also resist change.

"Rural communities can have their own notion of success that's place-specific and culturally defined," Alexander said. "Maybe they don't want to do things differently."

Still, having rural Internet access helps build businesses that can help diversify the economy, and that creates jobs, Alexander said.

"It's too simple to say that broadband solves the problem, but it is part of the solution," he said.

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