Colorado looks to spread the wealth
More than 1 million new residents have poured into Colorado over the past
decade, sending the economy into overdrive and the housing market into a
frenzy. Unfortunately, the growth pattern only takes place along what's
known as the Front Range, a 120-mile strip at the eastern foot of the Rocky
Mountains from Fort Collins through Denver and down to Colorado Springs.
"The rest of the state would like to see some of that growth, too, but
they've been completely left out," said Clayton Powers, project director
for Colorado's Multi-Use Network (MNT).
Powers hopes that a shot of technology can change the fortune of rural
Scheduled for completion in 2002, the new statewide fiber-optic network
will hook up not just government organizations across the Centennial State
but will also provide high-speed access to every county — including private-sector
The effort came about after the state, saddled with an IT project workload
that required robust communications, found that some of its rural field
offices couldn't even get a T-1 line.
"We decided that we had to find a way to solve both problems at once,"
The effort hasn't been easy.
To pay for the massive capital investment, Colorado became the first
to implement the "shopping mall" approach, acting as an anchor tenant and
promising $37 million over 10 years in service charges to contractor Qwest
Communications International Inc. Qwest was then able to make the business
case for investing the $60 million required to build the infrastructure.
"The rural organizations and businesses can then fill in the gaps and
hopefully make this a profitable venture for them," Powers said. The state
government will use about 45 percent of the network's capacity, leaving
plenty of fiber for private-sector and community organizations.
The MNT does not connect organizations, however. Instead, the contractor
is building 70 different Aggregated Network Access Points across the state.
The rural areas can then build their own local loops and hook into the high-speed
State officials compare the model to a beanpole, with the MNT serving
as the central stalk and the localities the vines that grow off it.
A corresponding community-based access grant program, known as the Beanpole
Project, offers $4.8 million to help rural towns and counties pool the buying
power of businesses, community organizations and individuals and pay for
the local infrastructure.
The first 41 access points are scheduled to be completed by June 2001,
"One of the things that we suspected but couldn't prove was that there
was a lot of dark fiber in the state that had been laid by the existing
telecommunications companies but that they didn't have the business case
to hook it up," he said. "That turned out to be the case and has allowed
us to get going pretty quickly."
Because the model is untested, Colorado officials initially worried
whether the project was even feasible. Powers said they've faced difficult
challenges along the way, including the merger of winning contractor US
West with Qwest, the fact that the state did not have a solid inventory
of its network circuits, and keeping all the different pieces on schedule.
"We're still struggling a little bit and still learning," he said. "It
does seem to be a viable approach, but you've got to have a really close
partnership with the contractor. You can't just turn it over and tell them
to report back when they're done. You have to be there together everyday
talking through issues, because issues come up every day."