Mountain Parks Electric moves forward with fiber-optic backbone
Mountain Parks Electric is slowly pushing forward with its new middle-mile system, the backbone of a new fiber-optic high-speed internet network in the county.
Mountain Parks Electric, MPE, recently hired Vantage Point, an engineering firm out of South Dakota, to begin preliminary engineering and staking work for the project with hopes of beginning construction in earnest in the second quarter of 2019.
“This will go a long way in strengthening internet service providers up here, which I think will enable people with second homes and people dependent on the internet to conduct their business,” said Tom Sifers, general manager at MPE. “We feel that if there’s a stronger internet presence it will keep those people up here for the economic benefit of the county.”
The middle-mile system works as the backbone for a high-speed fiber-optic internet network, allowing internet service providers (ISPs) to draw on that network to improve their service. The project, estimated to cost between five and seven million dollars, comes as the result of two feasibility studies and a recent survey of more than 400 MPE members, 87 percent of which identified low-cost, high-speed internet as important to the future of the local economy. MPE announced their intentions to construct the system in February.
The majority of the system will be installed overhead on MPE’s existing power poles, and will run from Fraser to Granby along Highway 40. From there the line will split, half running up to the McKenzie substation west of Grand Lake along Highway 34, and half running through Kremmling all the way north of Walden via Highway 125.
Vantage Point will inspect the line and determine if MPE needs to make any improvements to the strength of the line or poles, as well as make engineering recommendations.
“From the staking we’ll know if we need to do any make-ready on changing out polls or changing out the strength of the line, things like that,” said Sifers. “That will probably be happening around the first week of June.”
Despite near unanimous support in their early surveys, Mountain Parks Electric has faced some pushback on the project from local ratepayers afraid that MPE will use rate hikes to subsidize the costs of the project.
MPE is yet to determine a course for funding the project in the early going, though Sifers noted that the project could be funded in part via a loan from the Rural Utilities Service, the United States Department of Agriculture’s service that administers infrastructure programs to rural communities. He also pointed to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and the Department of Local Affairs as potential sources of funding.
Still, rate increases remain a very real possibility, though MPE believes they will be insignificant if necessary at all.
“I think it’s preliminary to know if it’s going to have an effect on rates,” said Sifers. “Whenever we expend money, whether it’s just an ad in the local paper or anything else, it ends up being in the rate base. But there’s still an unknown factor of how much. Because if we’re really successful in marketing it, we can sell the fiber or the bandwidth and that will offset a lot of those costs. So right now, if there’s an impact on rates we anticipate it will be insignificant.”
Internet service providers interested in improving their service will enter into a contract with MPE that will allow them to tap into the backbone, and pay for the fiber and bandwidth they use. But who exactly will sign on for the new service is yet to be seen, however.
Mountain Parks Electric anticipates that ISPs in the county like Rocky Mountain Internet, CenturyLink and Comcast would be interested in improving their offerings, though those conversations are yet to come. They also believe the improved service could help to draw new ISPs to the area.
“Because of what this may offer to incoming providers, this could attract new ISPs that might not even be a player in the county right now,” said Sifers.
“We do plan to have conversations with all the providers,” added Rob Taylor, director of external affairs for MPE. “But our focus right now is simply building the backbone.”
Regardless of some uncertainly remaining in the plan, MPE is confident that building the backbone is a good investment for the county’s future, in part because of it’s potential in creating a “smart grid” in the future.
“We’re seeing more and more electric utilities invest in the smart grid, and part of that is certainly a fiber-optic backbone,” said Taylor. “The future of what this industry will look like revolves around technologies that interact two ways, and the ability to get real time data with the electric grid. Whether we’re talking about battery storage, renewables or starting to control and cycle different electric loads that’s all going to be made easier with a strong fiber backbone.”
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