Frisco plans for broadband future while weighing cost

Frisco is hoping to plan out the town’s broadband future, including new “dig once” policies meant to facilitate cheaper fiber infrastructure installations.
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FRISCO — Frisco officials are ready to upgrade the town’s internet services, hoping that the installation of new fiber optic infrastructure could serve as a major catalyst in meeting growing data needs, drawing in new service providers and more.

But for council members and staff set on improvements, doing so without breaking the bank is the name of the game.

“I don’t think any of us could debate the need at this point for high-speed internet,” said Vanessa Agee, Frisco’s marketing and communications director, who provided the council with a presentation on broadband strategies during a work session last month. “I think the need will only increase as more people start telecommuting, as we see more telemedicine in the area and more people sending large amounts of data. But it is also a time of great opportunity.”

Most Frisco residents and businesses get their internet via cable or DSL, which are dreadfully slow options compared with fiber connections, carrying an average download speed of 19.7 megabits per second and average upload speeds of just 6 Mbps. For comparison, new fiber installations could rocket download speeds up to 761 Mbps and upload speeds to 741 Mbps, according to the town.

And while fiber installations are an inevitability — not only to address the needs of local industries and businesses pushing large amounts of data but also to facilitate the eventual rollout of 5G small cell technology — it’s also an expensive endeavor.

According to figures developed by the staff of Project Thor, a regional high-speed broadband access project spearheaded by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, it costs about $34.50 per foot to install fiber and conduits — essentially the underground tubing that houses the actual fiber strands that make up a network.

With matching grants available from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and roadwork already planned for the Colorado Highway 9 Gap Project, town officials think now is the time to act.

The Colorado Department of Transportation will begin construction work on the first phase of the Gap Project later this year, which will widen a stretch of Summit Boulevard between Main Street and Peak One Drive. If CDOT allows, Frisco is hoping to lay its conduit at the same time, a move that would lower costs of excavation and road repair, and mitigate inconveniences to residents and businesses in the area.

“Certainly the biggest expense is opening up the ground,” said Nate Walowitz, regional broadband coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “The conduit and the fiber are almost an afterthought in terms of the cost on these projects.”

To that end, Frisco also passed a “dig once” ordinance at its most recent council meeting, providing the town with the opportunity to install fiber infrastructure when excavation is being done on town or private projects — similar to other ordinances passed by Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Dillon and Summit County.

In addition to the new ordinance and pushing CDOT to allow some sort of fiber installation during phase one of the Gap Project, Frisco also asked staff to budget for installations during the second phase of the Gap Project in 2021, along with greater broadband strategic planning efforts to begin next year.

According to the town, the installations during the first section of the Gap Project (from Peak One Drive to Water Dance Drive) and during the second phase (from Water Dance to Main Street) each would cost about $93,000 including engineering, permitting and labor to lay the fiber and three conduits to allow for future growth. That price tag doesn’t include any potential grants from the Department of Local Affairs.

Before planning efforts move forward, there are still questions the council needs to answer. For example, the council could decide to lay one or two conduits instead of three, or to lay only conduit and add in fiber cables at a later date. While Frisco ultimately would be responsible for maintenance and distribution of the lines, it also could be contracted to a third party.

Any work done in 2020 would be out of budget, though the town has set aside $400,000 for Gap Project landscaping that could be appropriated for the fiber installation.

“The whole idea is to be fiscally responsible and to take advantage of all this digging happening, which can be really expensive,” Agee said. “That’s why with the CDOT project coming up, council felt it was really important to take advantage of these opportunities and get Frisco connected.”

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