STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A regional broadband improvement project is in its final stages in rural communities across Northwest Colorado, including in Routt County.
Project THOR, set to go online by mid-December, will increase network reliability and bandwidth for local residents and businesses, protecting the area from broadband outages.
A 178-mile fiber optic loop will connect the participating communities, creating a web of broadband connectivity all under contract with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, according to Jon Stavney, the organization’s executive director. It runs from Clear Creek County on the east to Moffat County on the northwest. Fourteen “Meet Me” centers in the communities, including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, will allow each to access the system.
The entire network will provide an initial bandwidth of 100 gigabits per second, with the potential for more in the future, according to Stavney. Currently, Routt County purchases a bandwidth of 140 megabits per second at a monthly rate of $519 through the Northwest Colorado Broadband project, a local nonprofit.
This is an improvement from 2011, when the county was paying $1,000 monthly for 10 megabits per second, according to County Manager Tom Sullivan. He expects the expanded bandwidth under Project THOR to negligibly affect the current monthly cost.
A grant of about $1 million from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ Energy’s Mineral Impact Assistance Fund helped to fund the $2.5 million infrastructure, including the installation of new fiber optic cables, Stavney said. Each participating community contributed money, with Routt County footing about $70,000 of the bill.
Officials in Routt County realized the need for more reliable broadband in 2011 after a cut in the fiber optic line knocked down cellular service for much of the area. Occasional and unanticipated interruptions in service have continued to cause headaches for local customers, who rely on high-speed internet to do things like process credit and debit card purchases.
“It has happened this year quite a few times,” according to Joshua Nowak, an operations manager with Zirkel Wireless.
His company already is taking advantage of some Project THOR infrastructure in an effort to improve service to customers.
Currently, when an outage occurs, it drops the internet service provider’s entire network, which has happened about three times this year by Nowak’s estimate. When that happens, businesses can lose out on financial transactions, and people may have challenges accessing vital services like emergency calls.
Zirkel Wireless has since signed on with THOR to boost network reliability and internet speeds.
Nowak estimates about 1,000 Routt County residents are in need of better broadband. In neighborhoods like Hahn’s Peak Village in North Routt, it can take 20 minutes to download a web page.
Nowak added that Zirkel Wireless is in the process of offering TV and phone services to customers in addition to internet, with the goal of having the option to sign onto a “triple play” plan by next week.
Yampa Valley Electric Association did not respond to calls for comment but also has announced plans to provide high-speed broadband through a subsidiary, Luminate Broadband.
According to a July 23 article from The Colorado Sun, the co-op recently applied for two state grants, totaling $1.8 million, to expand broadband to 474 homes and 48 businesses in North Routt.
Andrew Eubank is the broadband development project manager with Mammoth Networks, a Wyoming-based company that has been overseeing the infrastructure development for THOR.
According to Eubank, all of the equipment in Routt County is in place to complete the project, including a fiber optic cable that runs the length of Steamboat. That line, installed in 2017, will connect the county to the other participating communities and create redundancy in the system. In the event a cut occurs in one cable, others within the fiber optic loop should be able to continue broadband service without interruptions.
The 178-mile loop linking the 12 participating communities will connect to a cable that runs to Denver, according to Eubank. He said that connection should be completed “very shortly.”