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Colorado Communities Work Together to Expand Rural Broadband

In a recent webinar, two officials from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments shared how several Colorado communities have worked together to expand broadband to rural parts of the state.

Rural broadband
At least 14 communities — and potentially more soon — in Colorado have banded together to help establish better broadband access for rural residents of the state, and they recently shared some insights into their work.

Members of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG) participated in a webinar Tuesday hosted by Government Technology to discuss the collaborative efforts. Bringing high-speed Internet to rural communities has long been a challenge in the United States, one that is receiving new attention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which illustrated the importance of residents having a reliable connection at home in order to access education, health care and employment.

The idea that rural communities are stronger when they work together on broadband was central to the discussion, supported with some concrete examples of where this has been the case in Colorado. At the center of the discussion was Project THOR, which comprises a middle-mile network establishing carrier-class connectivity between various communities across Northwest Colorado, for communities such as Glenwood Springs and Steamboat Springs, along with several towns in counties such as Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin and Summit.

As part of the project, local governments in these cities and towns have hired Mammoth Networks as a network operator to connect over 400 miles of existing public and commercial fiber to provide service to underserved communities.

It was this effort that officials from NWCCOG discussed during the webinar.

“One thing you should know about these local governments is that this portion of Colorado, the western slope especially, but Colorado as a whole, is passionate about local control,” said Jon Stavney, executive director of the NWCCOG. “The state does not dictate much to these local governments about what they can or should be doing.”

The council started a technical assistance information-sharing program to centralize each town or city’s broadband needs and requirements. From that information, it quickly became evident that a common need for broadband and connectivity threaded through these communities, said Nate Walowitz, regional broadband program director for the NWCCOG.

Another shared issue the communities found during that process was a lack of broadband affordability, meaning that when there was broadband available, it could sometimes cost unreasonable amounts, which really strained access for the communities.

“We weren't getting Denver-based pricing; we were getting remote mountain pricing,” Walowitz said. “Some communities were paying up to $100 a meg or more for broadband access back to Denver, which wasn’t reliable.”

This posed connectivity issues for schools and residents. It also presented challenges for public safety organizations, as well as businesses that need the Internet to clear credit cards for purchases.

To tackle this issue, the project looked at where fiber currently existed throughout the state. The challenge after that was figuring out how and where to place a middle-mile network to provide affordable, reliable broadband to participating communities.

“We obtained a network design and also obtained funding through DOLA (Colorado Department of Local Affairs)," Walowitz said, "which offers a 50 percent matching grant to local communities to help support broadband.”

To receive this grant, he added, “we had to raise that 50 percent, so we went to each of the participating communities and said to them ‘if you’re interested, would you be willing to contribute to the match, and then host a network or network node?’”

A network node is a connection point among network devices that receive and send data from one endpoint to another. These nodes, which NWCCOG officials call “Meet Me Centers,” led to a loop of fiber being built out to connect these different towns and cities. Building that infrastructure and maximizing the grant would have been far more difficult without the multi-community collaboration.

Project THOR Phase 1 deployment map.
Northwest Colorado Council of Governments

“There was a cobbling together of circuits and dollars that occurred regarding local governments to make this happen,” Stavney said. “In some places, it was a hospital district or rural electric co-op, but basically, we needed all of these players to commit to paying monthly like a co-op so we can cover the cost of those circuits and pay the initial cost to construct this infrastructure, which is where Ciena came in.”

Ciena is a telecommunications company, and it also had a representative providing insight in the webinar. Daniele Loffreda is senior adviser for state/local government and education and health care for Ciena Solutions Development, and he shared information about the type of network technologies and architecture that were put in place to build out broadband throughout these communities.

As for what comes next, Stavney touched on the project's potential to reach a larger percentage of the state.

“Project THOR has the potential to touch 20 percent of the land mass of the state of Colorado,” Stavney said. “We’ve had to cobble this together at a regional level, whereas some states around the country are really doing this at a state level.”

“I think there’s probably pros and cons to that, but this is what we’ve come up with,” he added. “We’ve cobbled together some dollars from two grants, local investment and fiber from the transportation authority, and some circuit leases, but there is nothing currently at the state level to make this happen, which makes this different from other places.”

The goal is to expand this loop further to reach other communities in need of broadband connectivity.
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.