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There’s a new Thor in town, but instead of lighting up the night sky like the Norse god of thunder, it’ll be lighting up communities in rural Colorado with fiber optic connectivity.
A group of local governments and private partners, led by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), recently completed the first phase of Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network that will enable better connectivity in the participating towns, cities, and counties. The network, owned by NWCCOG, provides backhaul to local governments looking to connect public facilities, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions. It’s also available to Internet service providers (ISPs) to serve residents and businesses.
Project THOR brings much needed redundancy to the region’s broadband infrastructure, where previously a single fiber cut could take entire communities’ health and public safety services offline. It also promises great cost savings for localities and ISPs. Perhaps most importantly, the new network gives communities the necessary leverage to improve local connectivity beyond begging the incumbent providers for better broadband. Jon Stavney, executive director of NWCCOG explained on Community Broadband Bits episode 406:
This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to hopefully affect local service, however they can do that, with whatever partners come to the table . . . They’re able to actually act.
Building Toward a Network
NWCCOG, which is composed of member governments in and around Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin, and Summit Counties, coordinated broadband efforts in the region even before Project THOR began. A number of years ago, the council invested in a regional plan and hired a broadband coordinator, Nate Walowitz, to offer technical assistance to the member governments.
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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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence and her husband who live in Breckenridge, Colorado, received a special holiday treat on December 9th — their house was connected to the new community network, Fiber9600. Crews braved the snow in the mountain community in order to complete the first home install.
Winter Waits for No Fiber
Two residential neighborhoods have been chosen for the first installs. ALLO Communications, the Internet access provider delivering service via the publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure, has stopped scheduling new installation appointments due to the inhospitable winter construction season.
According to ALLO senior operations manager Junius Businelle, however, crews will continue to complete scheduled installations in the first two designated neighborhoods with expected completion by February 1. Installation is free and takes about 90 minutes to two hours, unless a subscriber asks for TV installation, which requires up to an hour.
Lawrence and her spouse, Ryan Scholl, wanted to switch to ALLO because their previous Internet access was too expensive and unreliable. “We’re really looking forward to it because we have really inconsistent internet,” she told Summit Daily.
From Open to ALLO
The city’s early plans were to develop an open access network in order to spur competition. The community, which welcomes large numbers of tourists every year, has experienced poor Internet access and high rates. City leaders, however, considered the challenges for ISPs operating on open access networks, such as getting a foothold in the community, and decided instead to work solely with ALLO for the first ten years.
With the option to renew the arrangement with ALLO for two more 10-year terms, Breckenridge will give the company a chance to establish themselves as a new entrant. The community will preserve an option to find another ISP in the future, if they’re not satisfied with ALLO after a reasonable period.
Up in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado ski town of Breckenridge has decided to set aside plans to operate its new fiber network as open access, opting instead for a single Internet service provider (ISP).
In May, Breckenridge selected ALLO Communications, a Nebraska-based telecommunications company, as the sole ISP for the town’s planned fiber network, Fiber9600. Town officials had initially planned to run Fiber9600 — named for Breckenridge’s elevation of 9,600 feet above sea level — as an open access network with multiple providers offering services to residents and businesses. However, after interviewing several prospective companies, officials decided to have ALLO be the fiber network’s only provider, at least at first.
Hello ALLO, Goodbye Open Access
Other companies in addition to ALLO responded to a Request for Interest Breckenridge released last fall, but town officials concluded that working with just one provider at the beginning will give Fiber9600 the best likelihood of success and selected ALLO as their preferred partner. Gallagher explained the decision to Summit Daily:
“We realized that if we came out of the box with two of these folks, that neither one of them would probably succeed and we would quite frankly fail delivering service . . . It was more important for us to ensure somebody succeeded with this effort, given the fact that we’re going to spend a lot of money putting in the infrastructure.”
Under the agreement with Breckenridge, ALLO will be Fiber9600’s sole provider and network operator for an initial term of 10 years, which can be extended for up to two additional 10 year terms. If the town ever decides to sell the fiber network, ALLO will also have the right to place the first offer. After ALLO’s lease has ended, Breckenridge could choose to operate the network as open access, but that isn’t guaranteed as part of the agreement.
There’s more than skiing stirring up Breckenridge, Colorado, this winter. Recently, the city released their Request for Interest (RFI) as they search for ISPs interested in delivering services via their future publicly owned fiber network. Responses are due November 26th, 2018.
The town is working with Foresite Group to develop an open access network in order to bring the connectivity businesses and residents need. In their RFI, they state that the town wants to fill the role of “fiber infrastructure provider” by developing a dark fiber network that will extend to all premises citywide. Breckenridge’s model does not include direct retail services from the city to the public at this time. Community leaders want to create long-term relationships with ISPs, stimulate competition, and discover new uses for the infrastructure along the way.
The city has determined that they will deploy the network in two phases with phase 1 scheduled for completion in 2021; they hope to finish the entire project some time in 2022. The first phase will begin mid-2019 and will focus on the fiber backbone along with connecting approximately 1,000 to 2,000 end users by the first year. While Breckenridge doesn’t have cost estimates for phase 2, they have determined that phase 1 should run around $8 million. The Town Council recently approved funding for phase 1.
The second phase will connect remaining Breckenridge premises, but depends in part on the results of the RFI issue. The city won’t connect premises until they find ISPs to work with and have a more concrete plan of what areas those companies plan to serve and the terms of agreements between the city and ISPs.
Breckenridge was among the list of Colorado communities that voted to opt out of the state’s restrictive SB 152 back in 2016. Now, they’re ready to move forward with design and construction of an open access network. As the resort town prepares to begin work on their fiber infrastructure, several other communities will ask voters to opt out of SB 152 on November 6th.
To the Voters
As we reported in August, Aurora, Cañon City, the town of Florence, and Fremont County had already made plans to put the opt out question on their local ballots. Since then, we’ve discovered that that at least six other local governments want voters to address SB 152.
In Salida, where the town needed to fill a vacated office without delay, community leaders chose to hold their election in September and put the issue on the ballot. The measure to opt out passed with 85 percent of the vote.
Voters will also decide of their towns or counties should reclaim local telecommunications authority in the towns of Fountain and Erie along with Chaffee County and Kiowa County. Over the past several years, more than 120 local communities have asked voters to opt out of SB 152 and local referendums overwhelmingly passed. Many local communities have presented the issue to voters with no specific plans in mind, but do so in order to keep their options open and because they feel that Denver is less qualified than they are in making decisions related to local connectivity.
The Fremont Economic Development Corporation (FEDC) has reached out to voters, urging them to approve the measure with a "yes" vote. The fact that SB 152 still hangs like cloud over the region prevents them from obtaining grant funding to boost economic development.
Colorado voters overwhelmingly reclaimed local authority in 26 counties and municipalities on Tuesday, November 8th. The total number of Colorado communities that have now reclaimed local authority is 95.
Citizens chose to opt out of state law SB 152, which prevented local governments from offering telecommunication services or advanced services to the general public. The law also bars them from partnering with the private sector and since 2008, a growing number of communities have put the question on the ballot.
We reached out to Sallie Clarke, County Commissioner in El Paso County and Brian Waldes, Director of Finance and Information Technology in Breckenridge for comment on their communities’ ballot measures; both passed with hearty margins. We also touched base with Virgil Turner who is the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose, which passed a similar initiative in 2014.
We’ve put together their comments and some information about SB 152 in audio form. The story runs for 4:37.
Read more about the recent election results and how all 26 communities chose to opt out, as well as see a map and details on the results.
We didn't need a crystal ball, magic potion, or ESP to predict that local Colorado voters would enthusiastically reclaim telecommunications authority yesterday. Twenty-six more local governments put the issue on the ballot and citizens fervently replied, “YES! YES, WE DO!”
Colorado local communities that want to take action to improve their local connectivity are hogtied by SB 152, the state law passed in 2005. Unless they hold a referendum and ask voters if they wish to reclaim the right to do so, the law prevents local governments from providing service or partnering with the private sector. Since the big incumbents that pushed the law through aren't providing necessary connectivity, their only choice is to opt out and work with new partners or move forward on their own.
This year’s results include seven counties and 19 municipalities. Many of those communities simply don't want lobbyists in Denver dictating whether they can move ahead in the digital economy. Over the past few years, the momentum has grown and, as places like Longmont, Rio Blanco County, and Centennial prove that local authority can improve local connectivity, more local governments have put the issue on the ballot.
The Big “Yes” In 95