Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Recent Internet disruptions make case for redundancy

“It’s all about loops”

By Katherine Nettles

Despite various Internet outages occurring throughout the valley in the past two months, several efforts to add backups are in the works and in the final stages. Tier-one provider CenturyLink has a Cottonwood Pass project set to finish by this fall; Western Colorado University (WCU) has a major hub project nearing the finish line; Internet Colorado has purchased an additional loop of its own for its 1,100 customers; and Region10 continues its effort to connect communities through the “middle mile” by installing fiber optic cable and/or lighting dark fiber as it gains access to it.

Several noticeable Internet outages occurred within a few weeks in April, and again in early May. While not all Internet users were affected in each of these outages, the disruptions are certainly not a new problem for the valley.

The May 6 outage was a double whammy of CenturyLink service interruption out of Denver and a cut fiber cable during construction of the Paul Rady School of Engineering building at Western Colorado University. The incident took almost 36 hours to fix and kept the city and county government buildings of Gunnison and WCU out of service.

Chad Robinson, associate vice president of information technology and CIO at WCU said he reached out to Internet service providers CenturyLink and Region10. CenturyLink informed him there was a major service interruption in Denver that was affecting our region. Meanwhile a CenturyLink service technician determined that the main cause was actually cut fiber.

“The Denver-based problem probably had affected us in some way but was not the cause of our major outage, just an unfortunate coincidence,” said Robinson.

The university is the primary Internet service provider for the city of Gunnison and Gunnison County, and has been for years. Robinson said WCU has been working with the city, county and many other stakeholders on a Local Technology Planning Team to bring Internet redundancy to the entire valley and improve the infrastructure and resiliency of local networks.

“The irony of this particular outage is that we are in the last stages of establishing our new Carrier Neutral Location [essentially an Internet “hub”], which will provide the university, city, county and other participating organizations an additional path to the Internet that would have in all probability made this cut an inconvenience rather than a significant outage,” Robinson said.

Taking matters in her own hands

Paula Swenson, owner of Internet Colorado serving customers throughout the county including the north valley, and IC Connex in Gunnison, has created a fix of her own.

“It has become apparent Internet providers need to provide loops. Loops haven’t been forthcoming here because we don’t have one, the line just goes between us and Denver,” Swenson said.

After her Internet lines were down for third time within 10 days in April, Swenson decided to take on another loop for her Tier 3 business. She purchased a large one that runs through Denver, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

“It’s a huge loop. So if it gets cut in Bailey again, we will go through this second line,” said Swenson. She still has a connection from Montrose to Gunnison as well.

“So basically now we have three different ways to get Internet here,” said Swenson. She is working on a line from Lake City south that is scheduled to be in by this fall and become a fourth route and bypass Montrose. “It’s all about loops.”

Swenson says she realizes improvements are on the way through Region 10, through the university and with CenturyLink itself, “but they’ve been telling us this for years. I had to take the step myself. I can’t continue to have my business cut off, so I bit the bullet,” she says. It’s thousands of dollars every month, Swenson said, “but when we go down, it affects the community. I would rather have a smaller profit and a better product.”

Swenson said she also hasn’t gotten information from CenturyLink about costs if they became her wholesaler. “It’s kind of an unknown for me whether I’m going to be able to use that Cottonwood connection. It depends on the price point and it’s a lot of figuring out where all the lines come from. The larger companies are going to have to start disclosing that information,” she suggests. “If they want all the major Tier 3s like me to buy from them, they will have to start talking about not just their price but talking about their path.”

Connecting the middle mile

Virgil Turner, the regional broadband project director from Region 10, describes how Region 10 is working with its range of six counties, including Gunnison County, to improve connectivity.

“About five years ago, in talking to the county governments in our region about economics, the number one change that everyone was asking for was broadband,” says Turner.

Region 10 responded to that request by commissioning a broadband implementation plan and strategy for building a “middle mile” network. The “middle mile,” as Turner explains, is the one that connects communities together, with the “first mile” being any major point of presence such as those in Denver, and the “last mile” being the one that goes to an individual home or business. The middle mile network connects each town.

“I’m really happy to say over the past three years we’ve done that pretty successfully,” says Turner. But the success has yet to reach Gunnison County.

The first phase Region 10 implemented was the city of Montrose and Delta County because they were ready first, and had grant matches. Phase two began last year and included Gunnison County along with a Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) grant.

“Our Gunnison project anticipated that we would be acquiring some dark fiber that we knew existed zoned by the Western Area Power Authority (a federal agency that produces power). There’s a line that goes from Montrose through Gunnison County and on to Colorado Springs,” says Turner.

“We’ve been working with them and are still working with them to gain access to that fiber…but it has not been made available to us yet.”

In the interim, Turner says Region 10 is focused on troubleshooting where Gunnison has had problems with CenturyLink line outages. “We’ve been focused on trying to solve that.” CenturyLink has fiber that goes from Montrose to Gunnison, and obtained a circuit that goes into the WCU campus that has been going for a little under 3 years. “We’ve had very few outages,” he says, until the one last month.

Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte have been another on the list for Region 10, but Turner readily admits the focus has been heaviest around the city of Gunnison.

Region 10 has recently installed a new carrier-neutral location, or “meet-me location” co-located at the Gunnison police station, where multiple carriers can come in and have open access. The organization is also working with Gunnison Valley Health and with the senior care center to better connect them, and has completed other smaller projects such as one to Gunnison County Electric.

“It’s been a lot of work around Gunnison County, but mostly around Gunnison. CB and Mt. CB are certainly on our radar and we’re working on some possible solutions to get the fiber build up to them,” says Turner.

But the ultimate solution to additional capacity and better pricing might be more competition. “The principle behind what we’re doing is to bring competition that isn’t there now. Not that those carriers there aren’t doing a great job now, but competition brings diversity, to the benefit of the consumer. It also brings challenges if the market is small,” says Turner. But we work at the direction of our governments. That’s the thing that’s driving us, and it’s become evident through our schoolchildren and now our remote office workers. It’s one thing to close schools and tell children to work remotely but if they don’t have broadband, the system is working to serve that need. I hope we’re looked at as helping further the service that they have already been providing. We are not looking to displace any business. Our role is to support businesses.”

CenturyLink was also contacted for comment but did not respond.

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