Broadband connectivity exists in the Colorado mountains, but until recently, it sat on a tenuous thread of fiber, with single points of failure shutting down towns and businesses. The region’s vulnerability in the middle mile led to the creation of open access middle mile transports network to support underserved and unserved communities in Northwest and Western Colorado.
“From rural to ski towns to mining and farming, everybody needs broadband,” said Nate Walowitz, Regional Broadband Program Director for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG). “One of our counties got interested in broadband because there was a fiber cut and ranchers started to call their county commissioners because they could not trade cattle. We’ve had multiple outages across the region, single fiber cuts taking down dozens of communities at the same time, just because of the architecture of the network of legacy providers.”
Ten counties across Northwest Colorado joined together for Project Thor, an open access middle mile network dedicated for transport and built for resilience using a series of concentric loops covering nearly 18,000 square miles, with other providers leveraging Thor for delivering last mile internet access to a quarter million people in the region.
“If one connection drops, we can pick [the traffic back up] and no one ever knows the difference,” Walowitz said. “We continue to fine tune the network as we go along.”
Using a combination of dark fiber and agreement with existing carriers, Thor has dropped bandwidth costs from $1.10 to under 25 cents a megabit. Moving forward, Project Thor will be merged with the Region 10 fiber network on the western edge of Colorado bordering the state of Utah and provide additional resilience and more affordable connectivity to the communities in the region. The longer-term plan is to interconnect the set of publicly owned networks through the entire western half of Colorado, creating multiple fiber loops across the state and supplying broadband to more people and pushing the last mile further out.
Funding for the open access middle mile networks is and will come from a combination of Colorado state and federal funding. “The [Colorado] Department of Local Affairs has a 50/50 grant match program we’ve used to build Project Thor and the Region 10 networks,” Walowitz said. “The ARPA funds are becoming available and the Colorado Broadband Office has been supportive of all the state broadband efforts. We’re looking forward to the IIJA BEAD funds, CAF funds, RDOF, USDA ReConnect funds. Our providers are trying to tap into as much funding as possible because they serve smaller communities that don’t necessarily have a lot of embedded capital to be able to do this. Finally, Colorado broadband funding is specifically directed for ISPs to deliver last mile solutions.”
Providing resilience to Colorado’s fiber network has been a necessity due to the numerous challenges provided by Mother Nature, including wildfires, snowstorms, and the occasional woodpecker. Depending on the community and financial resources, fiber may be placed underground or on poles.
Around 25 to 30 ISPs are supported between Thor and the Region 10 network. “In the three counties Thor serves, all of the ISPs except the incumbent providers are using our network because of the reliability and the price we’re able to provide for folks,” Walowitz said.
Listen to the latest Fiber For Breakfast podcast with Nate Walowitz to learn more about the Rocky Mountain middle mile networks.