FARMINGTON — City Council is facing a decision that, by some measures, could set the tone for San Juan County's economic outlook decades into the future.

In just over two months, council will decide on what to do with 80 miles of the city's unused fiber optic cable infrastructure. Mayor Tommy Roberts and city council are not taking their task lightly.

The decision, originally scheduled for final action at the Nov. 13 City Council meeting, was tabled until late January after Roberts suggested that input from the city's Cable and Communications Commission, Chamber of Commerce and Four Corners Economic Development would be valuable assets in the decision making process.

Council is considering two options.

The first, a lease of bandwidth, is modeled after a system used by the city of Cortez.

The city uses two options to bring broadband internet access to more consumers, said Cortez City Manager Shane Hale. The first is a per mile lease of fiber. The second is sale of capacity regulated through a meter box that, "chokes down," the bandwidth coming off the main fiber lines to the leased amount.

"We've got (internet service providers) that lease a certain capacity of the network and pay a per mile surcharge," said Cortez City Manager Shane Hale on Nov. 15. "The best thing from our standpoint is that there's more consumer choice. It's not about the price per mile we get. For us, it's more that idea of the long term. You've got these global companies that can tie into the global network."

Cortez' system, however, carries significant financial risk and long term infrastructure upkeep obligation.

"There's a huge out of pocket expense initially," Hale said. "As we go through, we have to come up with that seed capital."

Some of the initial expense was offset by a $750,000 grant from the state of Colorado, Hale said.

The second plan is a dark fiber lease modeled after the system used by the city of Durango.

The city received a Colorado state grant to build out fiber infrastructure to businesses and provide for redundancies in the system, said Eric Pierson, information systems manager for Durango.

"We're not an ISP, we're just providing fibers," Pierson said. "It's not a big revenue stream, but we're not in the business of making money off of it. Our priority is to provide high speed internet."

The fiber lease model allows the city to get the most value for its existing infrastructure, Pierson said. Although no new ISPs have entered the Durango market, Pierson says that the regions three primary ISPs are participating in the program and providing broadband access options to more of the population.

Both systems carry their unique benefits and risks for the city of Farmington. Roberts and city council will have to decide exactly how much risk is acceptable.

"I'm willing to assume a little risk," Roberts said at the Nov. 13 meeting. "What I want to do is facilitate economic development. I'm not so concerned with the revenue to the city."

In recent years, ISPs have made significant investments to bring broadband internet access to communities throughout New Mexico.

"We've continued investment in Farmington," said Dennis Pappas, director of the regional marketing group and network operations at Century Link in Albuquerque.

The company invested almost $1 billion throughout New Mexico over the past 11 years, Pappas said. This investment brought broadband speeds of up to 40 megabytes per second to some areas.

"As we deploy more fiber, it will get faster," Pappas said. "We have diversity in the network now and we're investing a lot in a robust infrastructure."

If the city of Farmington chooses to lease its dark fiber or bandwidth, Century Link would be interested, Pappas said.

However, the city's fiber optic cable system, was never intended for third party lease.

In 2000, the Farmington Electric Utility System began a program to replace its existing utility communications system, and over the last 12 years, the electric utility built a redundant fiber system to electric utility facilities. To date, they have completed about 95 percent of the connections to desired facilities, according to a report provided to city council on Nov. 13.

According to the report, the fiber system was for utility use. No plans were made for third party lease, and the fiber cables were usually attached to transmission and distribution structures, far from commercial or residential centers.

In 2011, the city's Public Utility Commission approved an agreement to lease the dark fiber, and a lease rate system.

In summer 2011, City Council contracted with Elert and Associates, a technology consulting firm, to determine the most effective options for utilizing the city's unused fiber infrastructure.

In the weeks leading up to the final decision on the city of Farmington's fiber optic cable infrastructure, Roberts and city council are faced with a particularly difficult decision. Although broadband internet access is vital in the 21st century economy, it can be difficult to quantify the expense of maintaining the fiber infrastructure. Fiber is intangible compared to roads, bridges, sewers and other physical infrastructure, and any economic benefits may not be seen for years or decades.

"You're matching (broadband internet) up against something concrete," Hale said, "but in the long term, it'll pay itself back in spades."