The map shows fiber optic lines in blue, with microwave towers in yellow, that are part of the Project THOR initiative to expand broadband on the Western Slope.

The city of Aspen took an initial step this week toward expanding its capabilities as a broadband service provider and opening its fiber-optic network to other community partners.

Aspen City Council at Tuesday’s work session approved a request from the information technology department to spend $86,000 on consulting and start up costs to create a “MeetMe Center.” 

The centers are part of larger initiative, known as Project THOR, promoted by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which is seeking to expand broadband capabilities on the Western Slope.

The MeetMe Center will leverage existing city of Aspen data-server infrastructure located in city hall. Currently, some government sites in the upper valley are connected via a dedicated fiber network running from the downtown core to the Aspen Business Center, the Aspen Recreation Center, the water treatment plant and the county’s health and human services building.

With the addition of a new 10-gigabit circuit, the city plans to offer the broadband that runs through that fiber network to the Pitkin County administration, the county’s broadband initiative and a project that will run a new fiber optic line up the Castle Creek Valley. This type of project establishes what is known as “middle mile” infrastructure, which refers to a broadband backend system that other providers can tap into to extend service to otherwise unserved or underserved locations.

Community broadband initiatives are active in multiple Colorado jurisdictions, including Glenwood Springs, Rio Blanco County, Steamboat Springs and Longmont, to name a few.

Paul Schultz, the city’s IT director, said that the city’s project could be cash-flow positive in three years with only the three other partners. He is beginning outreach to other potential participants that are in the proximity of the city’s network. These include the Aspen schools campus and Aspen Valley Hospital. 

When a fiber optic line was accidentally severed last year near Carbondale, commercial internet customers up valley were subject to an outage. That was a big deal for many, including Aspen Valley Hospital, which relies on the internet to send and receive medical information, Schultz noted, highlighting increased resiliency and backup internet availability as a primary reason the city is moving forward with the project.

In general, when more broadband is brought to bear, the community can expect faster speeds and lower prices. Schultz added that the city is committed to operating an open access network that does not sell its users’ personal information and abides by net neutrality principles.

Council members said they were glad to participate in a project that could expand community broadband resiliency and lead to better service. While Councilman Adam Frisch said he supported a regional mindset when it comes to expanded broadband, he cautioned that the city should be careful not to pay more than its fair share for a system that benefits residents who live outside city limits.

“I am hesitant to get involved in cost sharing above and beyond my generous self and the city of Aspen’s generous self,” he said, while supporting the initial step at Tuesday’s work session. 

Schultz said the installation of the new circuit is 90 days away. By autumn, the MeetMe Center should be up and running, he said.