OURAY – Students at the Ouray School whizzed into the new school year at light speed this week, enjoying Internet speeds that had never been seen before, thanks to a new fiber optic connection to the EAGLE-Net Alliance, a new statewide cooperative fiber optic network.
Local fiber optic splicing was completed last week to connect Montrose, Ridgway and Ouray to the statewide network that has been constructed over the past three years to transport Internet bandwidth from metro centers such as Denver and Grand Junction into more rural areas.
“The new service provides increased broadband capabilities and critical path redundancy for these Western Slope communities,” EAGLE-Net stated in an Aug. 27 press release.
EAGLE-Net actually installed fiber in the area last fall, but the project was then suspended for months by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, due to environmental permitting problems. This delayed the long-awaited hour when the fiber could be lit up.
Now, just in time for the new school year, that hour has finally arrived.
“The Eagle is up and flying,” Superintendent Scott Pankow was pleased to announce to Ouray School Board members on Monday, Aug. 26, reporting that the school’s bandwidth capacity has jumped from three to almost 100 megabitts per second (Mbps).
While other schools in the affected region are still weighing their options and in some cases bound by existing contracts that prevent them from switching to EAGLE-Net’s infrastructure right away, Ouray School is leading the way in trying out the new network. Pankow has been a long-time advocate of the EAGLE-Net project, at one point describing its transformative potential as “like going from an old jalopy to a brand new Corvette.”
It remains to be seen how well that Corvette will handle.
So far, the signs are pretty good. While the school year is still brand new, Ouray School IT Coordinator Kevin Kempton said that what he’s noticed so far is that there has been “not a single complaint about speed.”
This is a refreshing change for Kempton, who previously had to field complaints about poky Internet connectivity on a daily basis, especially during times of day when many students were attempting to access the same website at once. “It was brutally slow,” he recalled. “It was like watching paint dry.”
Now, with the exponential increase in Mbps delivered by EAGLE-Net’s fiber optic cable, Kempton said, these old-school problems should just be an unpleasant memory. “The way it has been explained to me is that we essentially just got a bigger hose, and now we can stick a golf ball through it, rather than pebbles.”
The school will also enjoy super-fast internet connections with other districts on the network, creating more opportunities for video conferencing and the like. Advanced education and research networks such as Internet2 and National Lambda Rail are also available through EAGLE-Net's infrastructure. “It opens up the communication world by a lot,” Kempton said.
The EAGLE-Net project is designed to improve internet services for local businesses and residences as well, through collaborations with so-called “last mile” Internet service providers which are able to use EAGLE-Net's “middle mile” broadband infrastructure (for a fee) under open-access provisions, to transport internet bandwidth to customers in rural areas. The Durango-based Brainstorm Internet is one such ISP that will begin offering EAGLE-Net bandwidth to Ouray customers – its first being the Ouray School.
EAGLE-Net, funded by a $100.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) infrastructure grant in September 2010 from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), was charged with building a sustainable statewide fiber optic “middle mile” network by August 2013. Initially, the plan was to connect 170 communities and over 200 “anchor institutions” throughout the state (including schools) with a 1 gigabit fiber-optic or microwave Internet connection. That mission has since been scaled back somewhat to include only the schools and not the anchor institutions. This was supposed to be the final year of the ambitious three-year project, but due to the delay imposed by the NTIA suspension, a few communities (including Silverton) won’t get their fiber until next year.
The suspension is not the only problem that has plagued EAGLE-Net. Since last fall, the project has come under attack as “government-provided socialized broadband” from some lawmakers and a number of cable operators and telcos, including Comcast and CenturyLink, which alleged EAGLENet’s federally funded effort to deliver services to schools and anchor institutions is nothing more than a means to overbuild existing infrastructure and “cherry pick” customers.
Now, with its fiber lit and the bandwidth humming in several communities on the Western Slope, EAGLE-Net Regional Community Representative Patrick Swonger hopes the controversy will fade.
“The really good news is that we are across this finish line,” Swonger told the Ouray School Board this week. “This is what we worked so hard for so long for. It’s been an interesting journey, but what is important is that we are here. This is a new frontier. It will take a while to get our heads around what we’ve got. We are really looking forward to having you guys use up some bandwidth here.”