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Heroic Partners Bring Middle Mile Fiber to Northwest Colorado With Project THOR - Community Broadband Bits Episode 406
The breathtaking mountains of northwest Colorado have long attracted skiers and hikers, but broadband providers haven't found the region's rugged landscape and sparse population as appealing. Enter Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network developed out of a collaboration among local governments and private companies led by the Northwest Colorado Council of Goverments (NWCCOG). Over the last few years, the partners strung together more than 400 miles of fiber to provide reliable and affordable backhaul to municipal facilities, public schools, healthcare systems, and Internet access providers.
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks with Jon Stavney, executive director of NWCCOG, and Evan Biagi, executive vice president of business development for network operator Mammoth Networks, to learn more about the recently completed project. Jon describes past broadband efforts in the region that led into Project THOR. The pair explain how the new middle mile network will allow localities to connect municipal facilities and anchor instutions and how broadband providers or the communities themselves can build off the network to serve residents and businesses. This will improve broadband reliability and affordability in the region, which had previously been plagued by network outages that cut access for hospitals and 911 calls.
Jon and Evan also discuss how the partners lowered project costs by leveraging existing infrastructure. They share some of the challenges involved in designing a network with so many partners. At the end, Jon explains how Project THOR will give communities more opportunities to take action on local connectivity instead of just impatiently waiting for better broadband.
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Jon Stavney: This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to, hopefully, affect the quality of service with whatever partners come to the table and make the most sense.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 406 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Jess Del Fiacco: Today, Christopher talks with Jon Stavney, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, as well as Evan Biagi, executive vice president of business development for Mammoth Networks. Christopher, Jon, and Evan talk about Project THOR, which was established by a group of Colorado communities who decided to band together in order to reduce costs and improve connectivity.
Jess Del Fiacco: THOR provides middle mile service so communities can engage in a variety of solutions to suit their unique local needs. They discuss how Project THOR has evolved and how Mammoth Networks has been involved in the project. Jon and Evan also tell Christopher about some of the engineering and funding challenges of working to develop a regional network with multiple communities.
Jess Del Fiacco: Now, here's Christopher talking with Jon Stavney and Evan Biagi about Project THOR.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance and I'm speaking today with two patient guests, Jon Stavney, the Executive Director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Welcome to the show.
Jon Stavney: Thank you, Christopher. Great to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. And we also have Evan Biagi, the executive vice president of business development for Mammoth Networks. Welcome to the show.
Evan Biagi: Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me.
Christopher Mitchell: And thank you both for your patience. We just, we just did a great introduction and I forgot to record it, so we're going to do that same thing again now. Mammoth Networks is a, it's a wonderful large wireless and fiber optic network in the West, but for people who want to know a lot more about it, we did an interview with Brian last year at the mountain connect conference, one of the wonderful events for a broadband gatherings in the entire country, which will unfortunately be postponed this year, like so many other things. But let me just start, Evan. Let me ask you to give me a 30-second sketch of what Mammoth does.
Evan Biagi: Sure. So Mammoth networks is traditionally a middle mile aggregator of broadband services and we've focused quite a bit on providing resilient and backup type, middle mile connections to more rural areas than urban. We focus in the New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana markets more than anywhere else. And we provide backhaul services. We take bits and pieces from various carriers and stitch them together in very unique ways. So we like to take on some of the more difficult and hard to get to areas and come up with solutions for them.
Christopher Mitchell: And you are working with a variety of partners, Jon Stavney, with NWCCOG, the Council of Governments, which I think is, it's a wonderful approach in Colorado of keeping regional local governments coordinated. Jon, you're the one that actually owns Project THOR. And why don't you tell us a little bit about what Project THOR is going to be- is actually already doing? I think of it as the hunky hunky network named after one of my favorite series of movies.
Jon Stavney: Right. Or Norse gods. Right?
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean, I suppose pop culture or sort of thousands of years of culture. But I go for the pop culture.
Jon Stavney: There you go. Project THOR. It's not an acronym, but so NWCCOG, council governments, we, we've been around since the early seventies. The state of Colorado, like many States actually has these regional organizations that are, representative governments deliver services. So we have a variety of different services that we, that we deliver across the mountain side of central Colorado. We're just on the other side of Rocky mountain national park from Fort Collins and Boulder and Denver and serve for a lot of your listeners who may know a little bit of Colorado, Summit County, Eagle County, Picking County, Grand County and Jackson County, which contain a winter park ski resort, Aspen, Breckenridge, Vail, among others. So we have a number of services that we've provided over the years where the agency for aging, providing funding for senior services. We inspect elevators across the region and we have a business loan fund and do weatherization that's low income qualified.
Jon Stavney: So a basket of different services that make more sense at a regional level than at a local level. And we've been involved in broadband for about six years or so. Starting back a little bit further than that to the conversation about broadband. We've had a number of our member jurisdictions, towns and counties who have been involved in local broadband projects for some time. Top of mine, Vale, which has hosted very large events as you might guess, has a wireless, municipal wireless network to bring in tens of thousands of people and be able to allow communications and have these large events. And they've been doing that for many years. Steamboat Springs, which is also at the Northern end of our region, has been doing mobile broadband for roughly the same amount of time, almost a decade really. And then you've got Glenwood Springs, which has been in the electrical delivery business.
Jon Stavney: Most municipalities in Colorado don't do electricity. They're rural electric co-ops that deliver most of that. So anyhow, we've had some seasoned members who have been in the broadband business. We did a regional plan and then brought on a coordinator, somebody to provide technical assistance across the region and Nate Walowitz has been in that role now for a number of years with us. And what's great with Nate's role is he's able to assist, at no additional costs to our members.
Jon Stavney: Those communities that want to explore how they might play a role in improving broadband locally. And each one has taken a bespoke approach to that. There really isn't a single way this is delivered or a single purpose. We have some communities like Vail really just wanted a cheaper, more robust broadband to serve mainly themselves in their hospital and others like the town of Eagle just up the road on I70 went from sort of "yeah, we want to just replace at the municipal a building having a large carrier service and we want to be on this network. So we, we have some leverage to pull," to in the course of a year of thinking about this and being involved, actually wanting to deliver municipal broadband. So Project THOR really came out of discussions with these different localities. Doing the projects and, , we provided help with RFPs and how you navigate the landscape of this industry and come to find out that a lot of these local projects just don't have robust, affordable middle mile going to them and that's really the origin of, of project THOR.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. One of the things that I love about the way you approach that is to discuss the local groups because Colorado, I think ,has been one of the best States for allowing solutions to bubble up that actually fit the local circumstances because people on the ground are developing them rather than having the state come up with a solution and sort of imposing it on people. Let me just ask, Evan, to tell us a little bit about what Project THOR is doing because if there's one thing I know from more than 10 years of discussing these kinds of networks, the first thing people assume is it's connecting people in their homes. What is, what is Project THOR accomplishing today now that it's lit?
Evan Biagi: Well first and foremost a project THOR does not go to people's homes or even to businesses for that matter, a project THOR is a middle mile transport network. And that's really, that's really all that it is. And that's what it was meant to be. What Jon was mentioning is there were a number of broadband projects throughout this region and everyone was taking a slightly different approach as communities normally do. But the one thing that each community needed, or needs, with whatever their broadband approach is, quality middle mile. So really when we started looking at each of these communities and their needs, what ended up happening is we went around and , talk to each individual community and ultimately we designed and engineered THOR to just provide a resilient connectivity in and out of each community. So the entire project THOR is built on various ring architecture and all of those rings essentially terminate down in Denver at one of the major Internet hubs.
Evan Biagi: And that allows us to provision network transport services in an open access fashion to each of these communities so that they can get the transport down to Denver. And then at Denver they can interconnect with whatever upstream carriers they so choose. You know, we've also provided a kind of a default connection if they don't have an existing carrier through Mammoth Networks where we are already interconnected with several upstream carriers and have a blended product there that folks can connect to. And we had even taken it as far to say, "Hey, it's as aggregated demand increases across the network will continue to provide a lower cost of that IP transit down in Denver to all of the communities that are connected through Mammoth there." So really the separation Northwest CCOG is the network owner and it's a transport network in and out of each of the member communities and it's open access.
Evan Biagi: What we've done is we've created some terms, everybody loves terms, each community that is on project THOR has what we are calling a "meet me center" and that's really where that local community meets the transport. It's kind of akin to a train station so to speak, where you can get on and off Project THOR and then we've left it up to each local community to take that middle mile and that connectivity and interconnect with either their anchor institutions, other ISPs or as Jon mentioned, some are doing their own muni type network.
Christopher Mitchell: We actually did an interview with Tim miles several years ago about the meet me room that I is another one of those solutions that bubbled up and I think has been very important but people can get more background on that there. We will have a link to that in our on the show page associated with the show, but I want to, Jon, I want to ask you one of the things that I think people also may assume is that these are areas in which there was no broadband, but Yampa Valley has been building the electric association. There has been building a network, , many of these communities had some form of access. You have them as part of the project. You have a healthcare organization. I think they already had some access but it wasn't good enough is my understand. There was some problems with it.
Jon Stavney: I want to, I want to correct that a little bit. So Yampa Valley Electric, they are served by Project THOR. They are serving the community of Craig, Colorado is just launching broadband services. So they are new to the broadband business and they also serve Steamboat Springs and we're a partner in NCB Northwest called a broadband. The Tim miles who's from the school district project, you're talking about, where that community had anchor institutions that municipality the County, the school district ,and a couple other key partners who got together and just said, "Hey incumbent serving this isolated community, you're going to negotiate with all of us. We're a co-op and we're going to pool our money." And they did their own fiber loop. And, and really that was a lot of the origin of sort of, the genius of THOR is, it is a co-op, a coalition of the willing, but you're right, almost every one of our communities, I think a good exception might be Red Cliff.
Jon Stavney: And there's been some good news about that. They did not have any Internet service or cell service and they're not directly served by THOR, but we did help them get that, serve their small community. Almost every one of the communities in this part of Colorado has some level of service. And I think the crux there is this is a really difficult part of the state, like a lot of the West to serve. I mean, the critical mass of people, customers, if you will, is really spread out.
Jon Stavney: Now we're concentrated in these communities, but even the communities oftentimes have, hills and valleys and art sort of like growing out from a core center. And so, with respect, it's a difficult region to serve. And so, complaints over the years were lack of investment. You know, often times service would go out and be out for periods of time and then costly serve as compared to urban areas. So yes, most of these communities have at least one incumbent provider, some of them like Breckenridge, they're served by multiple and still wanting to be involved in this because a variety of reasons.
Christopher Mitchell: Evan, I'm curious about the cost because I feel like if we're talking to someone and saying, "well, we're going to build, I shouldn't say we're going to establish more than 400 miles of network across some of the most expensive areas to build in the United States." And you'd say, "yes, it's going to cost you two point $6 million." You might be surprised at how little that is. How does that work out?
Evan Biagi: Well, so we took a different approach. So what we looked at is we said, "Hey, these are all of the different communities that would like to be on project THOR," and we really started peeling back the layers on what network infrastructure exists, who owns it, how could use it perhaps in a different fashion than it's being used today. And to be honest, the engineering was a little bit of a challenge as we were trying to figure out which communities wanted to participate, which communities didn't want to participate.
Evan Biagi: It was a continually changing game with engineering and cost modeling. So as we finalized the list of communities that we wanted to include in Project THOR, we ended up with 12 official meet me centers that were hosted by 10 different entities. A couple of those entities have multiple meet me centers and we utilized existing network resources from various different carriers and entities to stitch together the network that is Project THOR. Really there was not an existing carrier that had the entire infrastructure that we wanted and they weren't certainly using it in a way that was going to provide the resilient services that we needed.
Evan Biagi: So most of the network has been built using dark fiber elements that we've been able to obtain. One of our major partners was the Colorado Department of Transportation that provided dark fibers along the I70 route. But we do have other fibers that Mammoth was able to obtain through other carriers such as Strata Networks, CenturyLink, Comcast has some elements, even Xeo has a piece in this network. So what we did is we used different, I call them puzzle pieces to essentially build this network that most of it existed today, but just not in this manner. So keeping the costs down was a huge element in the success of this. And it allowed us to focus on, , getting some grant dollars and using that, namely for some local builds to connect to those elements as well as the electronics that are needed to light the network in certain areas. So, that's essentially how we were able to do what we did on such a tight budget.
Christopher Mitchell: And Jon, I'm curious how the Northwest CCOG actually was able to come up with the money. I never want to miss an opportunity to praise a DOLA and the matching grants from the department of local affairs of the state.
Jon Stavney: You know, Evan referred to this sort of evolving nature of who we like to call it, "the coalition of the willing," right? So we have, 28 member jurisdictions, 10 of whom bought into this project. And, and interestingly enough, we talked about how the projects are designed with different purposes locally. They also have different local champions, so in Grand County, the real need and the folks that sort of gravitated to us in this where the two medical centers, one medical center but in two locations and some of them were cities or municipalities and some of them were counties. And as you alluded to earlier, Yampa Valley Electric, which is serving Craig, Colorado, probably the most furthest out on the loop away from Denver. We didn't know as we were moving forward, it's kind of, we hit different points when we had are you in with a letter of interest, we'll take that letter of interest to DOLA as sort of a promise and go seek a grant.
Jon Stavney: Are you in with a contract? Right? Which is sharing money. And during each sort of round of that, the group just slightly shifted and changed. And of course from Evan's standpoint having to engineer the network, it mattered a lot. We had a running spreadsheet that Evan put together, networks put together where we could show if this community drops out and they weren't equal numbers right, then the costs go up for everybody else monthly here or there's the startup costs. So we took this group that we sort of came together and we help try to stay together with the promise of an investment and took that to DOLA and got a million dollar grant from DOLA for this basically 2.5, $2.6 million project. And that's the infrastructure that Evan was referring to, including some reduced costs.
Jon Stavney: You know, the main part of our backbone, 178 miles of the 400 miles is on Colorado Department of Transportation fiber. So negotiating a favorable public entity to public entity rate for fiber that they already had that they weren't using really helped make this project possible and kept the monthly costs down. You know, roughly half of the cost. We had a second grant actually that helped pay for from DOLA, Department of Local Affairs that help pay for three years of the first part of our ruling agreement with CDOT. That was another, 250, $270,000. It was awarded for 270 ended up being 250 and change was when it was actually billed for.
Jon Stavney: So yeah, we've cobbled together financing from local jurisdictions because DOLA, the state always wants to have skin in the game and it's 50% local match or more to go get those state dollars. That's really where the financing came from was these local agencies and grant dollars and we really played the aggregator, the organizer, the facilitator at Northwest CCOG to that. We don't have any COG money, so to speak, all the time, but we don't have any CCOG dollars into the project.
Christopher Mitchell: If we could solve a lot of problems with this low expenditure, we wouldn't have a broadband program. You've done a great job of figuring out how to thread this all together and make it work. I wanted to just touch on the operating expenses. How are the ongoing expenses going to be paid for?
Jon Stavney: Yeah, so they're paid for through a contract with each of the local jurisdictions and so they're paying a monthly fee to basically maintain the infrastructure and for the most part pay the operator to do their work. The Northwest CCOG is not taking a cut out of it. One thing we will have to add in is as we get more partners and it becomes a little more robust to start covering the cost or part of the cost of our coordinator, our director, broadband director's time. But right now he's covered separately through another program.
Evan Biagi: It's really unique when you take these 10 entities and you bring them together and you put them into this cooperative type model. What we've essentially done is we've taken those operating costs and we've divvied them up based on a size of meet me center and a couple of other metrics. And we've actually got this down to a point where it's like each entity has a share in THOR. We've even developed a model with allocating bandwidth across the network where they can trade share, so to speak. If one entity is not using enough capacity or the capacity that they have excess capacity, they can quote unquote sell those shares to the next entity. So it's a really unique model when you start talking about bringing that many entities together, man, it's not an easy task, number one, but number two, it's a great group and they discuss on a biweekly steering committee calls, essentially the operations and how this network is going to continue to evolve.
Christopher Mitchell: The other things that this project has accomplished is something that's fairly unique in my experience, which is Ron Rizutto, a professor at the University of Denver, who in my experience has never taken a position that is opposed to the incumbent interests. Someone who is as opposed to municipal networks as he is unencumbered by facts relating to municipal networks. He praised this and said that he thought this is a good example of government stepping up and, and taking care of something that private sector wasn't going to do. And so I was very glad to see that.
Christopher Mitchell: At the same time and in the same article actually by Tamra Chung from the now the Colorado sun who's just one of the best broadband reporters in the nation at the local level. She quoted CenturyLink who is takes a different view. And I want to ask you about this, Evan, CenturyLink says "the new network" quote "does not add any significant route diversity and, unfortunately, does not provide the last mile facilities needed to deliver broadband to rural Colorado consumers and businesses." Saying that "we hope that future taxpayer funded projects are focused on meeting the needs of unserved and underserved Coloradans rather than competing with existing facilities and networks." And so I'm just curious if you can respond to that. It seems like maybe we didn't need to do any of this work.
Evan Biagi: Well , Chris, as we mentioned earlier on, the intent of THOR is not to provide that last mile access. It is a middle mile network transport network and the last mile access is handled by the local communities themselves. So, again, just for clarity's sake, that's what THOR is and that's the intention of THOR. You know, also as I mentioned earlier, we've created the redundancy that we want on this network.
Evan Biagi: There've been far too many times where a single fiber cut impacts an entire community. We've had nine-one-one services impacted due to fiber cuts that are on the incumbents network and this is just the fuel for the fire, so to speak, and really determining the need for this. We also have some communities where we know that CenturyLink fiber is single threaded and we've used alternate carriers to get to those communities. So, certainly CenturyLink has stepped up recently in some communities we know that. Is that a result of Project THOR or these different efforts? Maybe? Even if it is, we'll call that a win. But, ultimately this is the network that the communities wanted and it was designed using various elements that do include CenturyLink elements. But for the most part want to compliment what CenturyLink has so that there's true resiliency across the region.
Christopher Mitchell: I think it's important to note. What I mean, one of the things that we've seen as Comcast is expanding and some of these areas too, and it's, it's not clear what necessarily the role is. If that would've happened otherwise or what their decision making is. But, Project THOR is not something that's meant to, harm those companies. Right? Like I think sometimes we see these and we feel like, Oh well CenturyLink's opposed, there must be some sort of, conflict there. But a project like Project THOR, this is about building a foundation that anyone can then build off of. Right? I mean that's the thing, that it provides because CenturyLink is not able to prioritize the kind of investments in rural Colorado that we may want to see in rural Colorado.
Christopher Mitchell: So, I just, I want to make sure that it's, this is something where we're like saying CenturyLink sucks. No one's saying that you're using part of CenturyLink fiber. They want to suggest, I feel like that there's no need for this. And so Jon, I want to, I want to come back to you quick cause one of the things that I read was that there was healthcare implications for the lack of reliability you had before. And I'm just curious, do you want to tell us any stories from, Northwest CCOG about why greater resiliency and redundancy was particularly important?
Jon Stavney: You know, and Tamara used the quote from the chair of Middle Park Health when we went up and met with their board, and this is a little over a year ago and talking about whether they would tie into Project THOR, these rural hospitals are not, if you will, full service hospitals, so they have to really pick and choose what services they can and they can afford to provide.
Jon Stavney: And so one of the things that is a challenge is a good bit of their imaging. They have the tools there, but the specialists who are then assessing those images and the doctor who was quoted in Tamara's story was talking about a stroke victim for instance, where the clock is really, really ticking and they need to send this image over the Internet to their specialists elsewhere and get, assessment and then get told back what they should do. And how regular outages and then if they had to go to their backup system, how it went from being timely to life and death. So the drama of that I think just underscored for us how important it is and we know rural hospitals are struggling these days financially and we also know how critical they are to delivery of healthcare. That is something we're really proud of. Having Middle Park Health be a partner and have two locations on the network.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and I would just say as we're wrapping up, I've been doing more thinking about Telehealth a lot lately, who hasn't? $2.6 million in a million dollar operating cost per year. You don't have to have a lot of medical benefits from that to justify that just from a medical benefits.
Jon Stavney: Sure, sure and I want to go back to the incumbent discussion. You're right, we're not set out to beat any of the incumbents, if you will. But we are there to provide some competition. And I've listened to too many meetings with end users and to me, I live in Eagle, complaining about their services and I can't explain why they are as they are CenturyLink will send people up and listen. But there's a lot of frustration in these communities and what happens to the people who are elected officials who are, convene these meetings with their citizens and with incumbents they realize really they don't have a lever to pull, to say, "Hey, would you step up to the plate?" And some places they have. Mammoth is a good example and some other networks in some of the locations that, that Evan could talk about where among others sort of the smaller, hungrier ISPs if you will, that have a conversation with the community of "we could deliver this if you helped us with that."
Jon Stavney: If we had that tower location or you built this fiber here. So those conversations are going on. They just don't really happen very much in these smaller communities with the big incumbents. And so they're kind of a black box. They're kind of a black box. If we don't know where their funding was spent from the federal government to invest in these communities, to serve underserved communities and rural communities. We don't know what their plans are. We don't know if they're heading towards de-investing or if we know they're investing in the next generation, on, in the urban centers and understand from a market standpoint that, but there isn't that kind of transparency. This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to hopefully affect the quality of service.
Jon Stavney: However, they can do that with whatever partners come to the table and make the most sense. And that's the exciting thing for these communities is that they're not just sitting back at this critical infrastructure, which is what broadband is these days. And just waiting, without anything more than broad assurances, they're able to actually act. If the incumbent step up to the plate and improve services, great. We cheer for that. So I wanted to give that thought about our relationship with this project to the incumbents.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad you did and I feel like that's a very good place to wrap up. So let me thank you, Jon. Thank you Evan. This has been a wonderful discussion and I'm so thankful for the work you've done for Northwestern Colorado.
Jon Stavney: Thank you Christopher. It's been a pleasure.
Evan Biagi: Yeah, thanks a ton.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Jon Stavney and Evan Biagi. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available @muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com 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 and the other podcast from ILSR Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and The Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through CreativeComments. This was episode 406 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.