Residents throughout Colorado Springs can expect more options for fiber-optic internet service in the coming years through a new Colorado Springs Utilities network.
“What we’re building will cross the digital divide,” said Brian Wortinger, Utilities’ fiber optic and telecommunication enterprise manager.
Colorado Springs Utilities is building the fiber system to serve its internal needs, but it also will help make the city attractive to new businesses and potentially leapfrog the fiber capability already in place in Huntsville, Alabama, a community that boasts some of the fastest internet speeds in the country. Colorado Springs could lose U.S. Space Command to Huntsville in about five years.
“We are including some of the latest technologies that could potentially make us even better connected than Huntsville is today,” Wortinger said.
Colorado Springs’ fiber loop will have greater capacity than Huntsville’s, he said.
“Every city that’s done this thought they were overbuilding that capacity and they have all later wished that they had built it bigger,” he said.
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Utilities expects over six years to build the network that will stretch 2,000 miles and serve every neighborhood in town through a contract with Ting, an internet services provider that has already signed a 25-year contract to lease the fiber. If Utilities built the project without a tenant, the construction was projected to take 15 years, he said.
However, some companies have some concerns about the project because of the potential competition it poses. For example, Underline announced in October it planned to build an open access fiber network that would be available to any company interested in leasing space. The company expected to build 225-miles of fiber in the first phase of the project already underway.
Similarly, Colorado Springs Utilities will lease fiber to any other internet provider who is interested. Utilities will not provide internet directly to customers and ratepayers will not see their bills go up to fund the project.
“This model is proven and makes good business sense,” said Utilities Chairman Wayne Williams. The project is expected to cost $45 million to $100 million annually, he said during a news conference Friday.
Utilities has had internal fiber for 30 years, but by contracting with companies such as Ting and others it will improve internet services for the whole community in a way that the existing companies have been unable to achieve, Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin said.
The number of internet providers available to customers varies widely based on neighborhood, Broadband Now’s national map shows. However, gigabit per second speed services are already available in town through companies like StratusIQ and Xfinity.
Ting is a relatively small internet provider that serves about a dozen cities in six states, including Centennial in the Denver metro area.
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The company has always provided internet through fiber and it expects to provide speeds of 1 gigabit per second to residents, said Jill Szuchmacher, executive vice president of Ting. In Centennial, Ting’s 1 Gbps services are available for $89 per month to residents, according to the company’s website.
Gigabit-per-second speeds ensure that residents can run multiple devices in their home and play online video games and stream TV shows at the same time.
“Fiber as a technology is really purpose built for the internet as opposed to other solutions like copper,” she said. Ting will install fiber from the Utilities system directly into homes and businesses to provide service, she said.
Ting expects to open offices in Colorado Springs, but Szuchmacher could not yet say how many jobs might be available.
Ting was selected from among 30 companies to be Utilities’ anchor tenant based on its finances, successful record and customer service, Wortinger said.
Utilities expects Ting to start offering internet services to customers within a year, Wortinger said. He could not say where the services would be available first.
The new fiber system will follow existing Utilities infrastructure underground and along high-voltage power lines where it can be protected. It will incorporate some of Utilities’ existing 250-mile fiber infrastructure, Wortinger said.
The foundation of the system will be a loop around the city that will incorporate huts — small, prefabricated structures that house internet infrastructure and serve as the hubs of a hub-and-spoke system to ensure fiber is available to every address. Initial construction will focus on the loop, Benyamin said.
A separate and secure portion of the new fiber network will serve Utilities infrastructure, Benyamin said. The secure portion would insulate Utilities from the kind of ransomware attacks that shut down the Colonial Pipeline.
The new system also could provide separate, secure fiber to companies, Wortinger said, an option that could appeal to military contractors.
City government also is expected to use the new fiber, allowing for infrastructure upgrades such as smart streetlights that could turn off when they are not needed and traffic lights that could manage congestion in real time. The fiber also could allow the city to provide free downtown Wi-Fi at some point, he said.
“The possibilities become huge,” Benyamin said.
Underline, a Texas startup has already started building its open access fiber network, said in a written statement Friday it wasn’t expecting the city to launch such a similar service.
“In the fall of 2021, we received direct assurances that CSU’s fiber building plans would not compete with our plan to deploy an open access fiber network across the city, nor with private industry generally,” the statement said.
Underline’s network has already signed up four internet service providers and plans to install infrastructure all the way to homes and businesses, it said.
However, the Utilities announcement could change the company’s plans in town.
“In light of today’s announcement, we look forward to engaging with the City to better understand their plans and we will assess our continuing engagement with the City from there,” the statement said.
Sebastian Nutter, a spokesman with StratusIQ, a Colorado Springs company that provides fiber internet services to homes, said he thought Utilities’ project could be a boon to underserved areas of the city, but might be unnecessary in areas that already have several quality providers.
For example, Utilities will be passing through neighborhoods where StratusIQ, Comcast and CenturyLink provide high-speed services, he said.
“I think it’s unnecessary spending because those areas are very, very well served,” he said.
He said he would like to see Utilities focus on underserved areas in Colorado Springs first and not just focus on densely populated areas, he said.
In general, he was supportive of the project that will set the bar higher for internet service in the city.
“It’s fantastic for the community. It’s good for jobs, it’s good for our city as a whole,” he said.