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

Colorado.

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

businesses.

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,"

Powers said.

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

ANAPs.

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,

Powers said.

"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."

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