Grand County entities explore fiber options to expand, improve internet
A new project to expand and improve broadband internet is coming to Grand County later this year through a partnership with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
In an effort to provide more reliable, affordable and abundant internet, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG) formed a public-private partnership with 10 counties, including Grand County, and Mammoth Networks to build a regional fiber network known as Project THOR.
“We are hoping to, once we get all of our contracts signed with our local jurisdictions, the concept of the network is essentially we are building an information superhighway,” said Nate Walowitz, regional broadband director for NWCCOG. “We’re going to build the backbone middle-mile network.”
Project THOR’s fiber backbone will run out of Denver, west on I-70 through to Glenwood Springs, up through to Rifle, Meeker, Craig and Steamboat Springs, down to Kremmling and then it follows Highway 40 through Grand County and back to Denver.
The project is projected to cost in excess of $2 million. However, NWCCOG received a $1 million grant from the Department of Local Affairs to help match 50 percent of local government contributions.
It also plans to take advantage of existing fiber networks, such as the fiber built by the Colorado Department of Transportation from Vail to Glenwood Springs on I-70. In fact, Walowitz told Summit Daily News when the project was first announced that roughly 85 percent of the needed fiber is already built.
“For part of the network, we will be using the CDOT fiber, which gives us the ability to really have a robust and flexible network architecture,” he explained.
Walowitz also said that as other fiber projects get built out, NWCCOG hopes to integrate those projects into the network for “the ability to long-term lower costs and improve reliability and give us control of our own destiny.”
For example, in Grand County, Mountain Parks Electric is currently looking into building a fiber network of its own. According to Mountain Parks Electric General Manager Tom Sifers, the company recently had an engineering study done for the project, but he said the project is still in the early stages.
“We’re reviewing their assessment of what they found and then we’re having our engineers review what we’ve got to do to make our lines ready,” Sifers said.
The next steps will be to get permits from the appropriate land agencies, he explained.
Walowitz said NWCCOG has been having discussions with Mountain Parks Electric, but because of differences in the project timing, any integration would likely take place later.
“As Mountain Parks Electric builds out their fiber, we have both agreed that we’re going to look to best efforts to help support Mountain Parks Electric and potentially use Mountain Parks Electric’s fiber network and integrate that into Project THOR and whatever network gets built out across Grand County,” Walowitz said. “In an ideal world, their fiber would all be ready by the time we’re ready to launch and we could just count on them. Their time frame seems like it’s a little behind ours right now.”
NWCCOG hopes to have Project THOR available to participating communities in September, while Sifers said it is still too early to tell what time frame the Mountain Parks Electric project will be finished.
Aside from talking with Mountain Parks Electric, Walowitz said NWCCOG has been communicating with towns and the county to see how the project can work for communities in Grand County.
“We’re in the process of working with a number of partners and potential partners in the county to determine exactly where and through whom Project THOR is going to land in Grand County,” he said. “We are having very active conversations, currently in Grand County, so when the network launches the communities in Grand County will be a part of Project THOR.”
Ultimately, the goals of Project THOR are to provide cheaper and more reliable broadband. Walowitz explained that buying bandwidth for a whole region helps to lower the price, similar to buying in bulk.
“One of the challenges is, we’re not Denver and so when you try to buy bandwidth outside of the Denver area, or when we buy bandwidth on a one-off basis, we don’t get Denver pricing,” he said. “If we pool together and band together and buy as a buying group, we can get a much lower price for bandwidth.”
This could also create competition in areas with few internet providers and encourage those providers to lower their prices.
As for how Project THOR makes broadband more reliable, Walowitz said the network design and equipment help ensure that if one fiber is damaged, it doesn’t cause the whole network to lose connectivity.
“We’re going to try to come as close to carrier class reliability,” he said. “We’re talking about 99 percent reliability.”
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