Texas-based Underline Infra-structure Inc. is making a $100 million investment in Colorado Springs to build an open access network that will deliver ultra-fast internet.
According to Underline, a company that designs, finances and constructs open access fiber-optic networks, the project will be the first open access network in the United States that offers customers a choice of service providers and delivers residential speeds up to 10 gigabits per second and 100 gigabits per second for enterprise businesses.
Underline will build, own and operate the network, which will be known as Underline: Colorado Springs. Underline will not provide internet service but will assemble a marketplace of service providers that will operate on the shared infrastructure, allowing consumers to choose their ISP.
The project is being privately funded by a consortium that includes Mears Group (an operating subsidiary of Quanta Services Inc.), Fujitsu, Duraline, and other industry participants.
“We are very focused on delivering fast and reliable connectivity, where the service and the price actually match,” Underline CEO Bob Thompson said. “It’s going to result in significant performance improvement and savings for the small business community, and it’s going to transform consumers’ experience with the internet.”
The expanded bandwidth is the next thing the city needs to become as productive as possible, “especially as we do a lot more virtually and remotely,” said Mike Juran, CEO of software developer Altia and president of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC Board of Directors. “The bandwidth that we have today is just not up to the task.”
Besides faster speeds, it’s anticipated that Underline: Colorado Springs will play a key role in economic development.
“For our citizens and our future citizens, and people considering our area, having access to a robust fiber network at competitive rates is definitely a consideration, and becoming a bigger
consideration as it becomes a bigger part of our everyday lives,” said Bob Cope, economic development manager for the city of Colorado Springs.
Underline is focused on accessibility, Juran said.
“When you add access, not only for business, but for individuals, for students, for people in underserved communities, … [you’re adding] a whole bunch of resources within the community that can contribute to the overall productivity of companies like Altia,” Juran said.
“Underline is focused on enabling the same speed and the same access to everyone, and pricing it depending on what the particular population can afford,” he said.
Many employees at Altia and companies across Colorado Springs are working remotely and having virtual meetings, he noted.
“We need them to have very reliable, cost-effective internet to do that,” he said.
Fiber-optic service also promises to deliver high-speed service consistently.
“Productivity might not be directly proportional to the increase in bandwidth,” Juran said, “but it certainly contributes to that. Every If you’re dropping video streams, if you’re dropping meetings and you have to restart them, that’s a productivity hit. Multiply that by the metropolitan area of Colorado Springs, those minutes add up to hours, days, years, and all of that is pretty darn critical.”
The network’s security will be important to Colorado Springs’ space, defense and cybersecurity sectors, he said.
“These networks need to have the right technology, infrastructure and hardware to support that,” Juran said, “and that is a pretty big differentiator of a company like Underline.
“This is a really good example of how the city, utilities, chamber and businesses are all working together to provide the services that we need to attract great businesses and to grow a great workforce,” he said.
Fiber networks can transmit data at nearly the speed of light, which means faster load times, smoother streaming and the ability to upload and download large files in seconds.
These networks also provide the capacity for services like secure smart-city solutions, distributed health care and wildfire detection.
The new network will be attractive to tech workers who are now able to work from home and are considering relocation from the East or West coasts, Juran said. The Colorado Springs region already is popular with younger workers who want to enjoy an outdoor lifestyle.
“Having more high-speed service at an affordable price is a big component to attracting those types of workers to Colorado Springs,” he said.
Underline’s investment “is definitely an economic development attraction and benefit,” Cope said. “It is becoming more a part of the fundamental assets that you need to be able to go into business today.”
As the fiber network reaches existing businesses, “that is going to be good for their businesses and allow them to enhance their business offerings,” he said.
Cope noted that some communities are struggling with the ability to make large investments in expensive fiber-optic infrastructure.
“It’s clearly an economic advantage for us,” he said. “It’s hard to say in what situation it’s going to be the determining factor. But in some cases, it will be.”
BUILDING THE NETWORK
Underline has been working with local business and government leaders for almost two years to get the project off the ground, Thompson said. Colorado Springs was chosen as Underline’s first project because of the city’s growth, business climate and its reputation as a center of the cybersecurity industry.
In the first phase of the Underline: Colorado Springs project, the company will be building about 225 miles of fiber infrastructure that will serve about 30,000 residential and business customers.
Primary construction will begin in the Downtown business district and will take about 12 months, Thompson said. But the initial distribution ring will be completed in about 12 weeks.
“We’re going to be in a position to light up the initial subscribers in November,” he said.
Installation in the Downtown area will be underground, but as construction moves into residential neighborhoods, it will follow the utility right of way.
“So if the utilities are aerial, typically in those alleyways between the sets of the streets, it will be aerial in those areas,” Thompson said.
The company will make use of fiberoptic conduit that has already been deployed in some areas of the county and is working out agreements for that type of use, he said.
Thompson said Underline has already hired its first Colorado Springs employees and eventually will be filling up to 100 positions.
“We’re not buying our work trucks in Denver and driving them down,” he said. “We’re going to buy our vehicles locally in the Springs.”
Thompson said the company has developed partnerships with the National Cybersecurity Center — its first commercial customer, and UCCS. He said he could not disclose “the direction of those partnerships, other than to say the work resides at the intersection of modern networking technology and UCCS leadership, and the cybersecurity research field.”
Other partners and early customers include the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center, Altia and Colorado Springs School District 11.
Three full-service ISPs — Adaptive Fiber, InfoWest and Stratus IQ, have joined the marketplace, along with Capcon Networks, a specialty business provider.
The majority of business entities in Colorado Springs, as in most communities, are small businesses,
“COVID highlighted a whole bunch of challenges for that business community,” he said. “so we approach businesses where we provide them services and conductivity that’s right-sized for their needs, at a price that matches their needs.”
For example, a micro-enterprise such as a restaurant might not require significantly more usage than a residence, but likely is paying significantly more in business pricing.
“So in our model, we match the pricing and the usage, and it’s going to result in significant performance improvement and savings for your small business community,”
For microbusinesses, symmetrical 500Mbps service will cost $79 a month. Pricing for small, medium and enterprise business customers will depend on their specific needs for speeds up to 10 Gbps.
The service will be symmetrical: That is, download and upload speeds are the same, said Eva Arevuo, Underline’s head of communications and marketing.
“The vast majority of existing infrastructure was not designed to support fast upload speeds, so if you look at any of the incumbent offerings, they will only show you the download speed,” Arevuo said.
In keeping with the company’s social mission of addressing the “opportunity divide” that separates communities and households which lack internet service, Underline will offer 500/500 Mbps service to qualifying households at a reduced price.
Underline’s research showed that in Colorado Springs, almost 10 percent of households have no internet access at home. In households with incomes of less than $35,000 a year, 22 percent lack access.