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Little-known internet network plans Western Colorado expansion to link students, nonprofits to supercomputers

Front Range-based GigaPop wants to team with local governments on the Western Slope to improve broadband in rural Colorado. It’s looking for funding for the $2.2 million project.

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The text-heavy website looks like it’s stuck in the 1990s.

But peering past the Front Range GigaPop’s pages full of Times New Roman font and blue underlined links, you’ll understand what the fuss is about. The broadband network, long exclusive to universities and federal research labs, offers unthinkably fast speeds and access to the brightest minds — and their data. And now, this decades-old network wants to expand to connect as many western Colorado educational institutions, K-12 classrooms, nonprofits, health care services and community organizations it can, from Denver to Durango and Grand Junction.

“It’s important because it is essentially the premier higher-ed research network in Colorado. That alone has a lot of major benefits,” said Chad Robinson, director of IT services at Western Colorado University in Gunnison.

His voice gets more excited as he talks about the learning opportunities for students and faculty at Western. But it’s also about the economic-development potential for the town of 6,600 people. Having access to 10, 20 and even 100-gigabit internet speeds would attract more high-tech businesses and researchers, and possibly spur corporate relocations to Gunnison. 

“Yeah, you could do a supercomputer here,” Robinson said. “I don’t know if that makes sense but, hey, you never know.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The idea that an exclusive research network could spread to the Western Slope and connect students, telemedicine patients and telecommuters is being pitched as BiSON West. The project is the western expansion of the BiSON Network, or the Bi-State Optical Network that stretches from the University of Wyoming and the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s supercomputer in Cheyenne, to more than two dozen Front Range schools and research labs from Fort Collins to Pueblo. Front Range GigaPop, or FRGP, manages the BiSON Network.

FRGP originally reached out to schools on the Western Slope. But then it began learning how local governments were improving broadband in their own communities. Region 10, representing six counties including Montrose and Gunnison, had built or connected more than 200 miles of fiber through its towns so that local ISPs can tap and sell service to households. The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments has its own effort to provide connectivity from Pagosa Springs to Dove Creek. 

Another collection of local governments from Pitkin to Jackson counties recently completed the 481-mile “Project Thor” network, owned by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. By sharing fiber and using economies of scale to negotiate lower data prices for its school districts, health care providers and municipal buildings, the local governments save money and have better service. 

“We’ve learned a lot and that there’s opportunities to really partner with these entities and really build community,” said Marla Meehl, FRGP’s manager. “The FRGP can serve as sort of the glue between the different (councils of government) and we can really then look at more of a statewide solution.”

The proposed expansion of the Front Range GigaPop network includes three local government-run broadband networks operated by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments and Region 10. By sharing fiber access and working together to bridge coverage gaps between regions, the cost should be lower for everyone and FRGP can reach more schools and researchers who would benefit from its high speed education and network. (Handout)

The FRGP would share the 200-gigabits of fiber it owns or has access to in the Front Range in exchange for access to networks on the Western Slope. That ideally would reduce Western Slope members’ current costs and get faster speeds and reliability, while FRGP could reach new research members.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to up the game in western Colorado and the rest of Colorado, not just within the Front Range area,” said Nate Walowitz, Northwest COG’s director of broadband operations, which is considering joining the BiSON West proposal. “We’re trying to figure this out. I’m committed to working with (Region 10) and with Marla to figure out a way to bring access to move BiSON West westward. On the back end, I guess Thor will have to carry the bison on his back.” 

Front Range GigaPop’s key attraction is speed and lower cost. It also has peering, or sharing agreements, with sites like Google and Netflix, plus dozens of research centers from the University of Colorado to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, where FRGP is headquartered. That means members can share data on one another’s networks without fear of hitting an ISP’s arbitrary data cap or finding themselves with costly data-overage fees. FRGP members also get access to the valuable Internet2, the nation’s largest and fastest research and education network.

“Right now, there are no Western Slope research and education users that have access to the Internet2,” said Virgil Turner, regional broadband director for Region 10. “I look at it as a leveling of the playing field. Students that decide to go to a Western Slope university, I would really like to see them avail themselves of all the benefits of the Front Range schools. This project really does that.” 

Workers connect Glenwood Springs existing fiber-optic network to the new Project Thor backbone, a 481-mile network built by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments to improve reliability of internet service in Western Colorado. Since Northwest COG relied largely on existing fiber in 14 communities, the project was relatively affordable and much of the $2.6 million in funding was spent on connecting existing networks together. That often meant just a few blocks to less than a half-mile of new construction at a time. The two-year project was completed in April 2020. (Provided by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments)

By connecting to the three regions, FRGP would create a nearly statewide research network connecting its 32 institutions to the Western Slope. In return, the COGs could use some of that connectivity to get their communities faster service and another back-up line. In all, the proposal would improve broadband service for 15 ISPs, 15 counties, four colleges and universities, 60 health care facilities, hundreds of small businesses and 140 K-12 schools, libraries, museums and community colleges in Western Colorado, according to the proposal. 

It may take a few years as schools adjust expiring telecom contracts to switch to FRGP or one of the government council networks, but initial funding could get the project deployed in 60 to 90 days, Meehl said.

The starting price? A mere $2.2 million to get the project operating for three years. A scaled-down, two-year budget with no staff would be $495,650.

“It is a pretty small amount of money to do a pretty big thing,” said Meehl, whose main job is to manage networking for UCAR and NCAR in Boulder. “… There’s some gaps that a little bit of funding could be a stimulus to, ‘Hey, let’s finish these pieces,’  and then we can get the Western Slope really connected at the same level the Eastern Slope is connected.” 

The cost of westward expansion

Meehl is already brainstorming about where to find that $2.2 million. 

She’s eyeing federal grants, but knows the grantmaking process is lengthy and it won’t come soon enough. If it got the money now, the network could be useful to thousands of students who spent the Spring learning from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID has kind of escalated and speeded up the urgency to move faster on this,” Meehl said. “There’s some urgency to the fact that you now have a bunch of workers and students at home. One of the concerns is what if we do have another spike in the fall? Everyone kind of limped along and survived for March, April and May. But can we do better in the fall? Can we get something in place in the next few months that will make it less painful to have to learn by telework?”

That’s the mission of FRGP. Like other research and education high-speed networks, FRGP got its start in the 1980s and 1990s with grants from the National Science Foundation. The agency wanted to continue the pioneering work between universities and federal agencies dating back to at least 1969. 

At the time, computer scientists at the University of California Los Angeles used the U.S. Department of Defense’s ARPANET to send a short message to fellow geeks at Stanford Research Institute hundreds of miles away. They intended to send “LOGIN,” but the system crashed after the first two letters. But lo and behold, the event made history and is hailed as the first internet message.

“As the commercial internet was being developed, universities found out quickly that their need to move large sets of research data required different types of capacity and network requirements than what you could find in the commercial networks,” said Jen Leasure, president of The Quilt, the national coalition of regional research and education networks. “That’s where  this idea for private networking for university research began, and now there are connections into supercomputing centers and branches out to other community anchor institutions that all connect into these private research and education networks.” 

The Quilt is the national organization of research and education networks that offer high speed and high capacity data access for universities, federal labs and other researchers who often swap large data files. The Front Range GigaPop is a member. (Handout)

But NSF’s grants were meant to be startup funding, so the research networks had to become sustainable. Organizations like Front Range Gigapop, which launched in 1999, kept the mission simple and split operating costs with its research and educational members, which today numbers 32. 

FRGP is currently sustainable. It’s like a co-op where everyone contributes. When a new member joins, everyone else’s costs typically go down.

But an expansion needs some capital investment, which has Meehl looking at grants, investors, private funders and other possibilities.

“Are there stimulus funds where we could say, ‘Look, for a very small amount of money in a very short timeframe, we can get a large part of the Western Slope connected into this higher-ed research and education community,” Meehl said. “If we could get some funds to get Region 10 connected to Thor … that would benefit not only the commercial sector but it would benefit all of research and education.”

Another option could be private investment from individual investors or foundations, and one Denver-based organization believes this is very possible.

“We totally have enough money in the state of Colorado to pay for broadband,” said Stephanie Gripne, founder and executive director of the Impact Finance Center, a nonprofit that educates investors and organizations on how to make investments that align with their values. 

Gripne said there’s a lot of people with money in Colorado looking to invest, but those decisions aren’t typically in line with their charitable donations. And investment advisors aren’t necessarily thinking about the social impact, or at least aren’t making sure the impact is consistent throughout the entire investment portfolio. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, was criticized for its fight against climate change after it was reported that the charity had investments in the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies. The foundation divested its holdings.

More: Rural Colorado sees more broadband options coming online. But getting up to speed is taking longer than anticipated in some areas.

Gripne’s team created a new kind of formula to help people measure the financial return of an impact investment versus charitable giving. The money you give away has a negative 100% return because you don’t make a profit and you never get the money back. But if you consider an investment in a slower-growth company or organization that aligns with your values, like sustainable seafood, the return on the investment will be higher than just donating the money. Combine that with other impact investments and your return could be just as much as an investment in a business that doesn’t share your values.

“When’s the last time somebody said, ‘I have a great negative 50% return on investment for you.’ That sounds horrible, right? But a negative 50% return on investment is a 50% increase to giving your money away,” she said.

That same kind of thinking could help investors find value in a rural broadband project like BiSON West. Instead of a charitable donation, investors would see their money return value by connecting students in rural communities, health care and telemedicine services and other social services..

“It’s super possible because basically we can blend a grant and a loan and a Wall Street investment together,” Gripne said. “And right now they’re only thinking about donations and investments. They’re not thinking full-spectrum capital.”

Uniting the Western Slope

This isn’t just about expanding a research and education network. 

Broadband service is nearing the state’s June 2020 goal of reaching 92% of Colorado’s rural communities. Service providers like CenturyLink, which has received federal funds to expand in rural areas, helped the spread. But in some regions, broadband service has improved despite large telecoms. Local municipalities like Red Cliff and dozens of others took it upon themselves to look for alternatives or build their own backbone through their towns.

Adding another path, like the Front Range GigaPop, can offer redundancy in case the other service is out. It also creates more competition as small ISPs can tap into these middle-mile networks to offer faster internet to home users.

Western Colorado University would benefit from the potential expansion of the Front Range GigaPop highspeed network, which is reserved for education and research use. With the new Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering, seen under construction on June 13, 2019, students will be able to get direct connections to resarch and education resources through FRGP. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“For us, it’s a two-fold win,” said Robinson, with Western Colorado University. “Not only do we figure out how to get a separate path as part of the deal, we (can) add a third ISP because having more is always better. … If we can solve both the redundancy and the performance in one swoop, the options become much greater.”

But now that broadband coverage has improved at least for some communities, there’s less desire to join FRGP’s research network because of faster speeds or extra redundancy. 

Fort Lewis College in Durango would love to have access again. It used to be a member but dropped out after budget cuts in 2013. The prime issue was that even though it was a FRGP member, it had to pay for data usage over CenturyLink’s network between Durango and Denver. And CenturyLink charged by the mile, said Matt McGlamery, the school’s director of information technology.

These days, the college has two new internet providers that link to Denver. The school also installed its own fiber to downtown Durango so connecting to the new internet services costs less. In fact, the cost for data to travel to Denver is now zero, he said. 

“Our local providers actually provide all the bandwidth we need,” McGlamery said. “But what we miss from the Front Range GigaPop was that academic connection.”

Rejoining GigaPop would cost the college money but McGlamery said he’d consider it. 

“The problem is a chicken and the egg. We don’t have the researchers to fully utilize that kind of network. And certainly now we don’t have the money to subsidize it,” he said. “We still are interested in it. There’s good things to come from grant funds and when these kinds of networks get built, they do attract industry and researchers that are good for society.” 

More: As Colorado nears 100% broadband access, funds for rural support shrink

For Virgil Turner with Region 10, he welcomes the expansion of another broadband network to his community, which already has two major ones. The more broadband options, the more attractive his community becomes, especially now that many communities are dealing with recovering from the economic impact of the pandemic. 

He said Delta County had been recovering better than expected after being hit by coal mine closures in Paonia and the North Fork Valley.

“With this widespread deployment of broadband in that county, we saw per capita income increase at a drastic amount, back to pre-recession levels,” he said. “In my mind, that came through this effort of getting folks connected to broadband at an affordable rate.” 

Folks in Paonia can get gigabit service for less than $80 a month. And that’s a big draw, he said.

“We’ve leveled the playing field for those communities that they’re seeing rates that are less than what their neighbors in Denver pay,” he said.

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