Rural Colorado governments lining up behind bold plan to deliver cheaper, more reliable broadband
Local governments across northwest Colorado are quietly lining up behind an ambitious effort to build a more reliable regional broadband network that could deliver higher internet speeds at lower costs by marshaling the collective buying power of local towns and counties.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments program, called Project THOR, is still in its infancy but has already won commitments from the town of Breckenridge, city of Glenwood Springs and Pitkin County.
On Tuesday, NWCCOG regional broadband coordinator Nate Walowitz presented the plan to the Frisco Town Council, days ahead of the bidding deadline for the project.
“We’re really a coalition of the willing,” he said. “The more folks that come and work with us and connect to the Project THOR network, the more all of our prices will incrementally be reduced.”
Project THOR has two main goals. The first is to create redundancies and improve the reliability of the regional broadband network, which is currently prone to mass failures when a fiber line goes down in a single place.
“Regionally, we’ve got some network backhaul issues,” Walowitz explained. “Whenever there’s a fiber cut, whether you’re in Frisco or Steamboat Springs or Pitkin County, you’re going out. And that impacts not only the towns, but the cellphone carriers, 911 centers, schools and so forth.”
The second issue is cost. While Summit County enjoys relatively low broadband prices compared with more rural parts of northwest Colorado, it could still be paying less.
Walowitz compared THOR to the low prices of Costco, where bulk purchasing power drives down costs. If local governments across the region came together and purchased broadband as a single entity, the prices each pays could drop significantly.
“The objectives of Project THOR are to provide access to reasonably priced, resilient broadband infrastructure,” Walowitz said. “We want 99.9 percent availability … and we’re hoping that we’re going to get prices lower than one dollar per megabyte for everybody.”
If all goes according to plan, THOR will select a company to run the new network, with NWCCOG acting as the network administrator. A major part of the project will simply entail tapping in to existing fiber. In Walowitz’s rough estimation, 85 percent of all the needed fiber is already built.
“All we have to do is work with an existing contractor and leverage our resources,” he said. “The difference is we’re going to buy multiple paths and create a network for ourselves.”
NWCCOG closed its request-for-proposals period on Thursday and is now evaluating bids. Based on the offer amounts, Walowitz and his team will put together a business case with some hard numbers and bring them back to local governments for consideration.
Eventually, THOR would create a second broadband link with Denver and two new connections to Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, making the network less prone to outages.
The effects of a better network are fairly obvious in the internet age, when commerce, information and even public safety all move at the speed of broadband.
In a tourism market like Summit County, better connections can also mean that people working remotely can visit more often and stay longer when they do.
There are also benefits to cell reception, which in Summit County has suffered from chronic under-investment and vast dead zones in places like Summit Cove and the Lower Blue area.
“This is a big-picture project, and we want to be involved in any opportunity we have to improve broadband, especially in some of our under-served areas,” Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said.
Stiegelmeier recently co-authored an opinion-editorial in this newspaper with Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis calling for greater public investment in rural Colorado broadband.
Since cellular towers often have to connect directly to fiber lines, a stronger broadband network can mean a stronger cell network, too.
“We need to continue to look at every way we can improve service,” Stiegelmeier said. “A more resilient broadband network definitely translates to a more resilient cell network.”
Although no price estimates are ready yet, Walowitz said he expects some funding to come from the state government, which is watching THOR’s progress with keen interest.
“We have had extraordinary buy-in from the state because they’re looking at this and saying, if you can do this in northwest Colorado, we can start to duplicate this around the state,” he said. “Right now they’re doing the same thing all of us are doing: They’re just buying point-to-point circuits.”
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