by Tara Walker
Mountain Parks Electric announced this week that they plan to build a middle mile system (MMS), essentially the backbone of a fiber-optic, high speed internet network. Over the past year, there had been much speculation about whether MPE would build a last mile and provide fast speed internet to all customers. While the decision will not provide MPE customers fast speed internet service and will not be the “last mile,” it will provide a backbone that internet providers can work with, a “middle mile”. MPE reports that a MMS backbone investment will not significantly impact MPE’s electric rates or financing and that construction could take an estimated 12 to 24 months.
Access to reliable, high-speed internet is becoming increasingly important in communities across the country. Mountain Parks Electric’s (MPE’s) service area in North Central Colorado a good example. MPE reports that currently, 85 percent of MPE-served households have residential internet service, up from 66 percent just 15 years ago.
By building the middle mile, MPE is working to fill a need in Grand County. “Over the past year and a half, Mountain Parks Electric has heard from many of its members about the growing need for high-speed internet service,” said MPE GM Tom Sifers. “It affects everything from the ability to conduct business, to retaining and attracting new businesses, to real estate values, to the quality of life of homeowners, tourists and full-time residents. All of this, directly and indirectly, impacts the local economy. Our members have relayed these accessibility concerns in emails, phone calls, online surveys and even in person – at monthly board meetings and our annual meeting. The feedback they consistently provided was that highspeed internet access is sporadic in this area, and in many cases inadequate
The MMS news comes after months of collaboration, 2 feasibility studies and a series of 400 interviews with MPE members. Regional broadband director for the Northwest Council of Governments Nate Walowitz reported to the Grand County Board of County Commissioners on July 18, 2017. He explained that he was working with Mountain Parks Electric as an independent consultant to discuss what is practical as MPE examines the possibility of their movement to be an internet provider in Grand and Jackson Counties or to at least help build infrastructure to support a provider. Walowitz, “Broadband is critical to economic development. We can’t get and keep people unless broadband gets better and better.”
MPE has been analyzing the broadband situation heavily and their feasibility study indicated that it would cost 95 million to provide retail services to 100% of membership while costing around $4,000 per member. The board of directors took the feasibility study, looked at the expense and decided that rather than building a last mile, they would build a middle mile fiber backbone that would improve electric utility operations related to power outage restoration times, communications, system efficiency and remote control and maintenance of electric equipment. MPE will be able to lease bandwidth to 3rd party providers that can improve high-speed internet offerings to MPE members.
Eden Recor is with Grand County Internet and has been providing high speed wireless connections to Grand County since 2001. He is glad that MPE is building a backbone and is excited to see how this will help his business, “They are doing the middle mile from Fraser to Jackson County which will be expensive to get to Walden since that is a long haul. We just have to see what the costs will be when we want to connect into it. I connect into three places in Grand County where I can get 10 gigs, but if they are strategically located and the price is good, I am interested.”
As Grand County moves forward, NWCOG’s Walowitz stressed the importance of partnerships across regions as well as public and private partnerships. He expressed a concern Grand County may need to address, “SB 152 limits public and private partnerships that we are working for. Summit has voted to exempt themselves from SB 152 and many local towns are moving in that direction as well.”
Kremmling, Fraser and Winter Park have all exempted themselves from SB 152 already.
“Taking this step to construct the middle-mile allows for more time to work with the communities and counties in our service area that have opted out of Colorado Senate Bill 152,” Sifers said. “This creates a possibility, going forward, for public-private partnerships. We also are hearing more talk from our state and federal governments about new rural broadband grant funds. Taking this step now puts Mountain Parks Electric in a shovel-ready position to react if these opportunities come to fruition.”
Grand County is looking to the future. In July of 2017, Walowitz expressed concerns, “Grand County is making progress, but it’s slow because the two larger internet providers aren’t investing a lot of funding to get to the last mile. Providers say they need a way to get into the communities to build the last miles or more opportunities to put wireless towers in to extend their network to reach more subscribers.”