Building a fiber network is difficult, and Springs Utilities’ internet project already has competition | News

Building a fiber network is difficult, and Springs Utilities’ internet project already has competition | News


John Cinelli, CEO of Metronet, spoke at a news conference last month in Colorado Springs.

Ben Kley says he’s kept a skeptical eye on the flurry of fiber internet project announcements in Colorado Springs.

Kley, president of StratusIQ — the first company to offer “fiber to the home” and gig-speed internet to residents and businesses in the Springs, back in 2007 — says building citywide fiber networks in the terrain of the Rocky Mountains is not a simple or cheap process. 

“The easy part is putting out the press release,” says Kley. “If this was easy, then the people that have been in this business for 30 years would have done it also. It’s not easy.”

“It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but we’ve got to see who’s able to actually perform on some of the promises,” he added.

StratusIQ (formerly Falcon Broadband) operates a fiber internet network located mostly in the northeast part of the city, offering nearly 10,000 homes gig-speed internet, a service option that several companies have now promised they will deliver citywide.

Gig-speed is the fastest and most reliable internet available, and over the next several years, the Springs will slowly see it become available in most neighborhoods. At least six companies, including StratusIQ, have plans this year to either build from scratch or expand their current fiber capacity to new neighborhoods.

But it’s all a matter of who can get the job done, Kley says.

“Building in Colorado is much different than building in other places of the country,” with obstacles like rocky terrain and wind storms that disrupt aerial installations, he says. And any time a project schedule is delayed — “you’re basically bleeding costs.”

“They’ll all start to figure this out when they actually start to execute,” Kley said.

At least one of the fiber projects starting this year, led by Colorado Springs Utilities, is expected to fall short on officials’ promise to build a fiber network with multiple internet service providers on it.

The Springs Utilities project is guaranteed to provide residents and businesses with one new ISP, Ting Internet. However, as the Indy has reported (see “Gone Dark,” April 20), the project isn’t expected to provide a competitive network for multiple ISPs to jockey for residential and business subscribers, as Utilities originally said it would.

Such competition between ISPs on the utility-owned fiber “backbone” isn’t the goal of the model Springs Utilities chose for the project, and backbones of the same model in other communities haven’t led to more than one new, city-wide ISP, the Indy reported.

Instead, private industry is moving into the Springs to provide those options, with several companies setting out to build their own fiber infrastructure and offer gig-speed internet. 

Much of this fiber construction by companies new to the Springs, and expansion of current capacity by so-called “incumbent” fiber internet providers Comcast, Lumen (formerly CenturyLink) and StratusIQ, had already begun or was mapped out before Springs Utilities’ fiber project came into the picture.

The companies will provide more internet choices for the Springs as a whole, where only about 37 percent of the population has access to one “fiber to the home” internet provider, and only 1.15 percent has access to two, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband availability database, which was last updated in December 2020 and relies on self-reported data from ISPs. 

The fact that the Springs is so “underserved” in this regard and needed more choices for the fastest and most reliable internet option available — gig-speed — is the No. 1 reason why Metronet, an Indiana-based private fiber internet builder and ISP, decided to enter the city, said Kris Smith, director of government affairs for the company.

Metronet announced on March 31 that it would build a $130 million fiber network to offer gig-speed internet to residents and businesses within city limits. Smith said the project has a faster timeline for completion — two years total — than other fiber internet builders. For example, Springs Utilities has a six-year timeline for its citywide network.

However, whether a single household or neighborhood has access to multiple providers will depend on where companies decide it is in their best interest to build or expand to. 

Smith says there are rare situations when Metronet might decide not to build to a certain area or home, if it doesn’t make sense for their business model.

“A great example would be horse farms that are maybe 20 to 30 acres — that would be really hard for Metronet to say ‘that makes sense for us, through our private investment, to build all the way up to that one, single-serve home.’”

Metronet and Underline Infrastructure Inc., both companies building “fiber to the home” infrastructure, do aspire to offer their services citywide, but it will be a gradual process of determining which neighborhoods to “light up” first based on residents’ interest in their services.

Ting will also eventually have the option to offer every household within city limits access to their gig-speed internet via Springs Utilities’ infrastructure, but they aren’t required by their Utilities agreement to do so.

And Comcast offers gig-speed internet to about 254,000 homes as of this year using its fiber backbone (it does not build “fiber to the home”), said Brian Thomas, vice president of engineering for Comcast’s Mountain West Region. 

Leslie Oliver, senior director of communications for the region, could not provide a coverage area map for the company’s broadband services, which would outline the areas that do not have access.

Lumen also did not provide a Colorado Springs coverage area map when requested. 

Mark Molzen, global issues director for the company, wrote in an email that its “current fiber enablement covers nearly every Colorado Springs metro [ZIP] code” (Lumen officials declined an interview). Molzen said nearly 40,000 residents in the Springs have access to Lumen’s fastest internet speed, which is 940 megabits per second — not gig-speed.

“Lumen is in the process of rolling out multi gig speed offerings” and will announce a rollout of this offering in the Springs in 2022, Molzen said. The company will also add access for about 10,000 more residents by the end of the year, he added.

Even if not all the companies cover all of the Springs, the city is hopeful that new fiber infrastructure development and fast internet offerings across the board will provide the competitive internet marketplace that residents are looking for, said Ryan Trujillo, deputy chief of staff for the city of Colorado Springs, who helped establish and now leads the Office of Innovation. 

“Ultimately, it increases the amount of broadband providers, which should increase the accessibility and affordability of broadband across our entire city,” says Trujillo. “In Colorado Springs, there’s really a combination of multiple models that I think ultimately will help the consumer and the resident.” 

Whether companies are building “fiber to the home” is an important distinction among the six fiber internet options that will become available in the Springs within the next several years.

Instead of hooking individual homes up to fiber, Comcast uses a different type of cable, coax, which doesn’t offer the same upload and download speeds. Thomas, the regional vice president, said that Comcast does build fiber all the way to some businesses or certain residential developments, but most homes are connected to a fiber backbone through coax cables.

This “hybrid fiber coax network,” as Thomas calls it, doesn’t require Comcast to do new construction directly around homes — the coax cables are already installed in most cases, as they’re also used for distributing cable television. This cuts down on construction and installation costs, he said.

“The infrastructure is already in place,” Thomas says. “If we can offer [faster internet speeds] in the existing architecture, why go tear up the roads and do all that to achieve the same thing?”

But building fiber to the home provides symmetric upload and download speeds, which is one of the main benefits of fiber in general, says Bob Thompson, CEO of Underline, which planned to be installing fiber with access to parts of Downtown as early as last week. Underline is building what’s called an “open access” fiber network, on which it will offer multiple ISP options that households can switch between with zero installation process.

“As we learned during the pandemic, the internet has got to be symmetric,” Thompson asserts. “The days when the only purpose of the internet was to stream Netflix are gone. People work from home, kids are studying from home, kids are doing Zoom study groups and work projects for their schoolwork — all of which requires upload speed.”

StratusIQ is partnering with Underline to be an ISP offered on Underline’s incoming fiber networks in Downtown and in the city of Fountain, says Kley, the company’s president.

He sees the Underline partnership as a way to expand StratusIQ’s coverage area to other parts of the city, as it continues to expand its existing infrastructure in the northeast.

Thompson is confident that Underline will be able to provide its “open access” ISP marketplace to every address in the Springs, regardless of whether it’s in a low-income neighborhood where subscribers need discounted rates. Underline’s business plan and network design accounts for that, he says.

“We began with a purpose, among other things, that the internet’s got to be fast, affordable and fair,” says Thompson. “The fair part means we will commit in partnership with the city to build the whole city — or at a bare minimum, that we won’t avoid poor neighborhoods.”