Internet outages became a distant memory this month as a good chunk of western Colorado turned on a new broadband system. But this wasn’t built by a typical telecom. It took a band of local governments and partners from 14 rural communities to stitch together the 481-mile network, dubbed “Project Thor.”
Communities from Aspen to Meeker craved better access and affordability but also demanded reliability. Over the years, multiple outages caused by accidental cuts in the internet line would shut them off from the rest of the world. At a Granby clinic, for example, medical staff couldn’t quickly send images of stroke patients’ brain scans down to radiologists in Denver for review during an outage, putting “the patient at significant risk of long-term damage,” said Dr. Thomas Coburn, a family and emergency medicine physician and CEO of Middle Park Health.
So the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, referred to as Northwest COG, coordinated the two-year effort of public and private organizations that couldn’t wait any longer for existing broadband providers to fix their problem.
“A service outage is extremely taxing on our hospital operations and frustrations do run very high during a down time. No internet means no email, no access to the outside world, and limited access to even our own networks,” said Rob C. Wissenbach, director of information technology services for Middle Park Health clinics, which partnered with Project Thor in Kremmling and Granby. “So far, the partnership with Thor has proven to be successful.”
Project Thor is that “middle mile” of physical lines sitting between the greater internet and an internet service provider that serves consumers.
Thor doesn’t serve home users, but Northwest COG partners can tap it for their own communities and share it with their school districts, local institutions and even local ISPs, which, in turn, can expand service to consumers.
It’s been fully operational for a few weeks now, though facilities like Middle Park Health have been able to access part of the network since last summer. While there still could be outages, Thor has multiple redundant lines. If one line gets cut, internet traffic is rerouted to another to prevent an outage for customers.
“The other day, there was a small fiber outage that affected a few of our communities,” said Nate Walowitz, director of Northwest COG’s broadband operation. “And Project Thor kept going. Nobody knew.”