Fiber-optic expansion set to move area’s online life into faster lane

BOULDER — The speed of business in Boulder will get a lot faster soon, and the options for companies large and small that need lightning-fast bandwidth are growing.

Only a fraction of buildings in Boulder and Broomfield counties are on a fiber-optic network, or “on-net.” As of early October, there were 266 lit-fiber buildings in Boulder County and 96 in Broomfield, according to data compiled by Forethought.net, a Denver-based IT and communications services provider.

That looks set to change.

Zayo Group LLC is in the process of greatly expanding its services along the Front Range.

The Louisville-based telecom company has risen to prominence because of an aggressive growth strategy since its launch in 2007. Zayo’s network is now more than 68,500 route miles, and it has more than 10,000 buildings and 2,400 cell towers on-net.

Those miles include long-haul lines and denser networks within cities, such as its greater Denver network, where Zayo has about 660 buildings on-net.

But Zayo doesn’t have assets in its backyard of Boulder and Broomfield counties — at least not yet. The company announced in July it would add 521 route miles to its Denver network. The expansion will reach into Boulder and Longmont and from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins.

Zayo is expanding to support a large project for a single customer, the press release announcing the expansion said. According to the network map on Zayo’s website, the lines will be built to cell towers.

Glenn Russo, Zayo’s executive vice president for corporate strategy and development, declined to give details about the customer, but he said the expansion is part of a strategy that will allow other clients to connect to Zayo’s network. The company’s Boulder clients will not be limited to a wireless provider for very long.

“You put more fiber in than you need when you build these networks,” Russo said. “We create a lot of extra capacity so we can put solutions in place for other customers.”

Zayo’s speeds for dedicated Internet access and Ethernet run up to 10 gigabytes per second. Potential customers that need that kind of speed are in large industries such as tech, education and energy or research and development.

The number of companies and industries that need that much bandwidth continues to grow, and the cost of getting connected will drop once Zayo’s expansion is complete. That will make fiber a reasonable option for even more companies.

“The economics of getting onto a fiber network are much improved when the fiber’s already nearby,” Russo said.

Zayo’s network will have company. Level 3 Communications Inc., a Broomfield-based telecommunications company (NYSE: LVLT), has a fiber network that runs through Boulder and Broomfield counties.

Level 3 is one of the world’s largest telecom companies, with long-haul routes spanning the globe. The company’s Colorado assets include 400 on-net buildings in Colorado and about 2,500 total fiber miles in the state, according to its communications department.

CenturyLink also provides speeds up to a gigabyte and has been upgrading and expanding its high-speed infrastructure, according to Scott Russell, CenturyLink’s vice president and general manager for Denver and Northern Colorado.

“We’ve been continually looking to upgrade our networks to meet customer needs, and it’s not just keeping up with them, it’s staying ahead of them.”

CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) and its predecessor, Qwest, have invested about $72 million in network upgrades in the Denver area during the past five years, Russell said. While some of that money has gone to fiber upgrades, CenturyLink thinks the copper lines telephone companies have relied on for generations still will have a place.

“The market isn’t saying everything has to be fiber-based. … (Customers) are saying my needs are complicated, and what can you offer,” Russell said.

That’s particularly true for small or medium-sized businesses whose needs include VoIP, a fast and reliable Internet connection and access to offsite servers. Picking services a la carte remains one of the most popular options, Russell said.

The day is close when most businesses will outgrow the T1 and DSL lines they’ve relied on, Forethought.net’s CEO Jawaid Bazyar said.

An example can be seen in the health-care industry. The growth of electronic medical records systems and the need to transmit high-resolution images have caused hospitals and small medical practices to upgrade their networks, Bazyar said.

More bandwidth also will be needed for small businesses that want to take advantage of the cloud. The emergence of cloud-based apps such as Salesforce.com is allowing companies to cut their IT budgets and shift more services offsite. Faster connections are required to benefit from what’s available.

It won’t be long before even the smallest businesses have to make access to bandwidth a priority when setting budgets or finding a location.

“It’s mission critical,” Bazyar said. “It’s just as important as getting power.”

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