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Colorado Community WISP Picks Up Slack When Incumbent Fails to Deliver - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 325
When Fairpoint wouldn’t give folks in Crestone, Colorado, what they needed after repeated requests, they decided to take care of it themselves. By 2012, Ralph Abrams and his band of Internet pioneers had created Colorado Central Telecom, providing affordable, dependable fixed wireless service to premises throughout the region at much faster speeds than Fairpoint could ever deliver. In this episode of the podcast, Maisie Ramsay, Marketing and Business Development from the company, tells us more about the company and their work.
Colorado Central Telecom has been delivering Internet access to subscribers for a relatively short time, but it’s clear they have the needs of the community in mind. They’ve made steady investments in their equipment in order to improve their services and have even picked up some fiber network resources. Maisie describes some of the challenges of working in a mountain geography such as the San Luis Valley and the technologies they employ to get past the hurdles Mother Nature has created.
Maisie also talks about some of the collaboration Colorado Central Telecom is pursuing. It’s clear that the company has a goal — to bring better connectivity to the people in the region — and doesn’t mind sacrificing a little as a way to improve the situation for the whole region. No wonder they were named Service Provider of the Year at the 2018 Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Maisie Ramsay: The Internet is an important community resource — it's an invaluable community resource — and so we spend extra money on our network and on our backhaul to ensure that our service is reliable.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 325 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. The state of Colorado has experienced a boon in recent years. Unfortunately, incumbent Internet service providers aren't eager to invest in the infrastructure that rural Coloradoans need. Enter companies such as Colorado Central Telecom. A relatively new company, they started because the incumbent Internet service provider wouldn't improve options regardless of requests from local residents and businesses. Rather than accept defeat, locals got together and formed their own Internet access company focused on the public good and the needs of unserved and underserved communities in the San Luis Valley. They recently won the Mountain Connect Service Provider of the Year award. The company primarily offers fixed wireless service, but it has also invested in some fiber connections. In this interview, Christopher talks with Maisie Ramsay from Colorado Central Telecom. She provides more details about the company's humble origins and the technology they use. Maisie also gets into some of the challenges they faced as a community-led effort and describes the partnerships the company's forging to improve connectivity for residents and businesses in the San Luis Valley. Now, here's Christopher with Maisie Ramsay of Colorado Central Telecom.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance up here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And today I'm talking to Maisie Ramsay, [who does] marketing and business development, as well as other duties as we'll cover, for Colorado Central Telecom. Welcome to the show. So I ran into you and Ralph at the Mountain Connect event in Vail this year, one of my favorite conferences. I'm frequently talking about it. You started this company in 2012 in Crestone when incumbents weren't serving the area well. And then when we met, it was right before you won an award for the Service Provider of the Year. Tell us a little bit about the motivation for starting Colorado Central Telecom.
Maisie Ramsay: So as you mentioned, we did indeed get our start in 2011 when our CEO, Ralph Abrams, led what amounted to a grassroots effort to bring broadband into Crestone because the incumbent just was not upgrading the service. They kept giving the line that upgrades are coming, we'll get around to it, but that was just not happening. I mean, the service there at the time was basically, you know, about as slow as dial-up, and it was falling so far behind the rest of the state that it was affecting economic development in the area. So you know, people were moving away because they couldn't get decent broadband. So they as a community basically decided to take matters into their own hands. They explored several different business models but finally just decided to move forward with an LLC. And the first client came online April 4, 2012
Christopher Mitchell: And Crestone is a beautiful area. It's in the mountains. You're not, like, in the Denver Metro or anything like that. Can you describe to people where you are exactly?
Maisie Ramsay: Our corporate headquarters, so to speak, are at Ralph's house down in Crestone. Yeah, he lives near the downtown area. And then our network administrator Kevin lives a couple houses down from him. Then we've got a little tech support office out on T Road. Crestone is this beautiful village nestled into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It's renowned for its Buddhist retreat centers. It's just a really beautiful community, very close knit, and it's a truly special place. It's definitely an interesting location to be the base of a telecommunications company, but you know, anything is possible in Crestone.
Christopher Mitchell: My first introduction to those mountains was on a trip in which I was heading out and excited to see Arches and some of the other parks in Utah and get my way down to the Grand Canyon. And I was with a friend and my sister, and I was tired and I was driving and we saw signs for Great Sand Dunes National Monument (at the time I think it was). And they forced me to go. I just wanted to get to where we were going to spend the night. And boy, let me tell you, if anyone's anywhere nearby, I highly recommend this region. It's just beautiful and Great Sand Dunes is one of my favorite national parks. So I'm jealous that you get to spend a lot of time in that area.
Maisie Ramsay: Yeah, it's very special. I go hiking down in the Sangre de Cristos all the time, and if anybody's in the Crestone area, I definitely highly recommend taking a hike up to Willow Lake. It's this beautiful Alpine Lake nestled below Kit Carson and Challenger peaks, which are a couple of fourteeners. There's a waterfall and it's just gorgeous.
Christopher Mitchell: This is the kind of area where, you know, as you're evaluating how to serve people, fixed wireless seemed like the best option. So let's talk a little bit about that and how you started connecting people.
Maisie Ramsay: Right, yeah. I mean, so as you can probably ascertain from the fact that, you know, we started as a community led effort, we were really bootstrapping it, and fixed wireless technology offers an extremely cost-effective means of reaching rural customers. It's a very flexible technology to deploy because you are not having to run fixed infrastructure from your middle mile to the end user. So for instance, instead of having to run a fiber line 10 miles or so to connect one client, you just rig up a dish at their house and essentially beam in a signal from a tower. So you know, what would cost tens of thousands of dollars with fixed infrastructure, getting that same location connected on fixed wireless might be just a few hundred dollars. So it's a great technology for low population density areas, just like Crestone. The big challenge with fixed wireless in a mountainous environment is, as you might expect, mountains. Topography can be a challenge in the mountains because fixed wireless does require unimpeded line of sight. So that's just what it sounds like. You need to literally be able to see from the house to the tower to get a signal in. So if there's trees in a way or a hill or a ridge or what have you, then you might not be able to serve that location or might have to get really creative about how to go about that.
Christopher Mitchell: Some of the people that listen to this show are much more technical than I am or many of the guests are. But can you tell us a little bit about the products that you're using in terms of what spectrum they use and what that delivers to the end user?
Maisie Ramsay: The equipment that we started out with is from this company called Ubiquiti, and it uses primarily the 5.8 gigahertz spectrum, which is an unlicensed frequency. We also deployed some 2.4 gigahertz equipment. And then at the time, we were also using 900 megahertz equipment for heavily treed areas because the 900 megahertz spectrum was better able to penetrate foliage than the 5.8 and 2.4. The speeds that we were able to get with that first generation equipment would vary quite a bit depending on location and distance from our towers. So our lowest plan at the time was 4 Megabits per second and then we went up to 12. But some clients we were able to get a lot higher than that. For customers that were in trees, that is difficult to serve, so typically we were only able to do our lower plans for those folks. But you know, when we first started, it was such a vast improvement from the speeds that they were getting at the time that it was a great solution for our customers. And of course, we continue to invest in new technologies as they become available, and we've increased the bandwidth that we're able to offer to clients.
Christopher Mitchell: If we skip forward to today then, what are you using and what kind of end user speeds are you getting?
Maisie Ramsay: So we have transitioned to a lot of equipment from Cambium Networks. I want to say, and I hope I'm not misspeaking here, but I believe that they started as an offshoot of Motorola. Regardless of their origin, we've been super pleased with the performance of that equipment. You know, depending on the location and distance from our tower, we're pulling speeds of up to 60 Megabits per second during time of install. And we are also using some equipment on the 3.65 gigahertz band from Telrad, and that's also been performing really well. That new equipment has allowed us to increase the service plans that are available to our clients, so we now offer standard plans of up to 25 megs, which is the FCC's definition of broadband service.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. And you do also offer the up to 3 Megabits upload as well?
Maisie Ramsay: Yes sir.
Christopher Mitchell: I thought so. So one of the things I thought was interesting — and I don't know how prevalent this is. It used to be that WISPs were commonly using data caps, but you are pretty prominent that you do not have data caps.
Maisie Ramsay: That's correct. We do not limit our customer's data usage at all. We just base our plans on the bandwidth that we supply to them, but we don't meter that bandwidth in that, like, they can use all the data they want within the size of the pipe that they're purchasing from us. And our customers love that. They don't want to have to worry that, you know, they're going to watch a movie and then their Internet's gonna get throttled to nothing for the rest of the month or that they'll stream something on Netflix and next thing they know, they're getting this gigantic bill in the mail for using too much data. So that's been one of our competitive differentiators, and something that keeps our clients happy is that we're not capping their data usage. That's just a benefit of the technology we use and something that, you know, you don't typically see for services offered over a cellular network or satellite based services.
Christopher Mitchell: So what are some of the challenges that you're facing today in terms of expanding service?
Maisie Ramsay: Well, I mean, we're constantly having to upgrade our network to keep pace with customer expectations. Colorado is a very rapidly growing state, and here in the rural areas, you get a lot of folks coming from big cities that moved to the boondocks and want to get big city bandwidth, you know, when they live in the middle of nowhere. And we're doing our best to provide that to them. Another challenge in rural areas is redundancy. A lot of the incumbent providers only use one source of backhaul to the main Internet hub out in Denver, and so as a result, if there's a fiber cut, for instance, you might see the incumbent provider with a countywide Internet blackout. So we've had to invest in redundant backhaul services, which of course is an extra cost for us, but it's one of the things that sets us apart from the incumbent providers. So when, you know, the incumbent provider is having an outage, our network is still up and running. And we've made that investment because we want to provide quality service, and we know how important it is to have your Internet working all the time, which sounds so obvious, but, you know, we're a community oriented company. And the Internet is an important community resource — it's an invaluable community resource — so we spend extra money on our network and on our backhaul to ensure that our service is reliable and that local businesses, government entities, and residents can depend on it.
Christopher Mitchell: And this is something I wanted to just flag. It goes a little bit outside our specific conversation, but one of the things that you've done is work with Mammoth Networks and some other local providers to ensure that you have that robust backhaul. Can you just tell us a little bit about that approach?
Maisie Ramsay: Sure, yeah. We have partnered with Mammoth Networks. They did this really cool infrastructure deployment, and we are leveraging that. We are the anchor tenant on basically this middle mile fiber route that has north-south redundancy. So like if one leg of that fiber ring gets cut, it's still functioning. It's not like a one-way-out type deal. And that redundancy was really proven to be important this summer when we had some wildfires down in the La Veta area that caused the incumbent provider to have a multiday internet outage. I want to say it lasted four or five days, it took down the incumbent provider, [and] it affected cellular service, but our network was totally unaffected by that outage. And that incident demonstrated yet again the importance of having a redundant backhaul connection. Then, in addition to the Mammoth infrastructure that we leverage, we also leverage backhaul from Zayo Networks that is physically independent and path diverse from the Mammoth infrastructure. So, you know, we try to just keep ourself covered on multiple fronts, just in case something catastrophic happens. You want to be able to ensure that your customers still have that vital lifeline to the Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: Yet another reminder that when we talk about wireless networks there often is fiber involved at some point or another. But you've also gone into fiber in some areas where you can make it pencil out. When did that start?
Maisie Ramsay: Well, the fiber — I want to say, you know, technically I think it started about three years ago when we purchased this little company up in Buena Vista called Matrix. And they had done some kind of fiber deployment in town but had kind of let the maintenance on it languish. So when we bought that company, we inherited their fiber assets, which at the time was kind of like this fiber project because it wasn't really complete and as I said, the maintenance had kind of lagged. So it was our introduction to fiber, and we started by just bringing that network up to speed and expanding off of that. And then last year, we completed a fiber project in conjunction with Affiniti and the Colorado Telehealth Network to connect the hospital down in Salida and a couple of their satellite locations. So that was our first fiber deployment in Salida, and we've been able to expand off of that backbone. It's been a really exciting project, and I can testify that our local business owners, when they can get on that fiber, they're absolutely thrilled to have that as a service option.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, we've heard that in a number of places. They love it, and one of the things we often hear is that once you have them on that network that nothing will take them off. They're not going to go back to the incumbent for a price cut. So you're looking at, or I'm sorry, you've actually established a partnership with a local cooperative to further improve Internet access. How did that come about?
Maisie Ramsay: Ciello is the company in question. They are an Internet provider down in the San Luis Valley in Saguache County, and they're part of San Luis Valley Rural Electric. And they just have these resources that we can't even fathom, and so using those resources, they're able to bring next generation broadband services to Saguache County. And that's very complimentary with our goal here at Colorado Central Telecom, which of course is to bridge the digital divide, so there were some very obvious synergies between our objectives and their goals. So we pursued a partnership with them that we're executing on right now. It's improving broadband service for Saguache County residents, and we're really thrilled to be able to partner with them in such a collaborative manner.
Christopher Mitchell: So what does the partnership bring? I mean, both of you have your own networks that you're operating. You know, it's like peanut butter and chocolate — what caused you to get together in the peanut butter cup?
Maisie Ramsay: Basically what we're doing is moving our customers over to Ciello one at a time when Ciello's service becomes available at their address. So this means, you know, a diminished presence of Colorado Central Telecom in Sequache County, which is difficult in one sense because that is our home territory, but we feel like it's better for the community in the long run. And it's also a good feeling to be able to partner with another local company to improve broadband service in the region. And we keep it really personal. Our customer service team calls each and every client to speak about the process before the transition takes place. And then in terms of logistics, a service call is needed to physically move each customer from one network to another.
Christopher Mitchell: The thing I want to leave with is talking a little bit about how both your network and the Ciello network as it's moving up into that territory — how is the region benefiting? Are there any special anecdotes that come to mind?
Maisie Ramsay: I guess what I can say, from what folks in the San Luis Valley have told me, is that the Internet connectivity has allowed them to stay in the area, and they haven't had to leave because they weren't able to get this vital resource at their home. You know, it's hard to function in this day and age without Internet connectivity. It's as fundamental as electricity. It has benefited the area in terms of economic development. It's allowed telecommuters to move into the area, benefiting the local economy. I know that I've seen firsthand, the growth in population in the Crestone area just in the last three years has been really amazing. And from what I understand, before broadband became more available, the population was declining because people were having to leave because the Internet service was inadequate. So it makes a fundamental difference to the bottom line of local residents.
Christopher Mitchell: I'll bet some people probably like having your service but are annoyed that you're bringing more people into the area. There's always some people that want it to just stay the same, to be their own little region to themselves.
Maisie Ramsay: Sure, but you have to change, and stagnation is never an option. Especially in a state as rapidly growing as Colorado, there's just no way things are going to stay the same. Everything always changes. And I got to say, even people that don't like change, still like having Internet service, so I think even they see the benefit.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time. I know that running a small company like this, I'm sure there's many things that need your attention. So thank you for sharing your story with us and our audience.
Maisie Ramsay: Absolutely. Thanks for your time.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Maisie Ramsay of Colorado Central Telecom. Learn more about the company at ColoradoCentralTelecom.com. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and hey, while you're there, take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 325 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.