City of Aspen expanding its broadband reach, will benefit county
A move by the city of Aspen this week to improve its broadband services will benefit thousands of people looking for cheaper, more reliable and faster internet.
The city’s $86,000 investment into a fiber optic hub, called the Aspen MeetMe Center, will greatly benefit Pitkin County. The city already operates a fiber-optic network that serves its own government operations, as well as Pitkin County’s.
Pitkin County will rely on the center much more as it rolls out its valleywide broadband initiative, bringing internet to outlying areas, including Thomasville, Meredith and Redstone.
In order to do that, the county has to create a “microwave backhaul” system that connects towers around the valley from the air.
Kara Silbernagel, the county’s management analyst, said the MeetMe Center will maximize the economies of scale for users who choose to participate. For the county’s broadband initiative, it means it can build the towers quicker because the upfront costs won’t be as much as originally budgeted.
“We were going to build the backhaul individually and we were looking at five years to break even,” Silbernagel said, adding that connecting to the center’s fiber optic cable will likely reduce that by two years. “When Aspen came to the table it changed our financial model … there is more cash flow upfront for us.”
Pathfinder LLC, which is a local internet provider, also is expected to tap into the MeetMe Center and become a customer of the city’s. Pathfinder plans to provide internet up Castle Creek Valley at what’s been described as a hefty price tag for the customer. Becoming a “community anchor institution” within the center could reduce the company’s operational costs.
The county this week approved allowing Pathfinder to install a fiber-optic cable into the right of way along Castle Creek Road.
Aspen City Council approved the initiative Tuesday, with some of its members commenting on the county’s plans.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said with so few internet service providers in the valley, the market allows for the privatization of what should be considered a public utility.
“Privatizing the internet is repugnant,” he said. “It’s a necessary utility.”
Paul Schultz, the city’s IT director, explained to council that the MeetMe Center is part of a collaboration happening with other communities in the state to improve broadband called “Project THOR.”
The cities and towns involved are creating a resilient, open access regional broadband network for unserved and underserved areas while aggregating bandwidth to reduce costs. The more communities that participate, the cheaper broadband becomes, Schultz said.
And that’s the case locally. Schultz said he plans to reach out to other institutions that are geographically situated to tap into the MeetMe Center. They include the Aspen School District campus, Aspen Valley Hospital, Aspen Skiing Co. and Colorado Mountain College.
“It’s a potential revenue stream,” Schultz said, adding it wouldn’t be a huge profit margin but would cover the center’s operational costs, and then some.
The city also will solicit feedback from the community to identify gaps in broadband availability, reliability and quality.
“We want to hear from the public to see if they are interested,” Schultz said.
The MeetMe Center also means the city no longer has to rely on an outside internet service provider, and it will utilize two or more broadband backhaul circuits to ensure resilience in the event of a broadband circuit failure.
Hauenstein said a resilient, open-access broadband network is good for business and the community. For example, it would allow the hospital to have a backup network should there be an outage and also be able to transfer patient records more reliably.
“High-speed internet is the key to our future,” he said. “Speed is addicting — once you have high-speed internet you don’t want to go back.”
Schultz said that an increasing number of communities in Colorado are controlling their broadband future, including Glenwood Springs, Steamboat, Rio Blanco County and Longmont.
“Like many other municipalities we see a gap,” he said.
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Nearly 100 locally-owned businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been awarded grants from a pool of $1.2 million in relief funds from Pitkin County.