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The Trailblazer Broadband Internet Rollout…Behind the Scenes by Edward Yagi for the Allenspark Wind

Reprinted with permission of the Allenspark Wind, September 2023 Edition, Vol. 50, No. 8, by Edward Yagi

The day was September 11, 2013 – ten years ago this month. A huge, slow-moving cold front from Canada stalled directly over the Colorado Rockies, clashing with extremely warm, humid monsoonal air coming up from the southwest. The result was a once-in-a-thousand-year downpour and flooding along the Front Range from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. Estes Park was deluged by 9.31 inches of rain in seven days: more than half of what normally falls in a year. Roads were destroyed, neighborhoods were washed away, and Estes Park’s sole Internet connection with the rest of the world – mostly copper line between it and Loveland – simply vanished, not to be replaced for months.

The catastrophe vividly demonstrated our area’s dangerous over-reliance on Internet access – now a necessity of daily life – to a single, non-looped thread of connectivity. It also exposed the scattered, expensive, unreliable, or non-existent access throughout our mountain areas to begin with. It got smart people thinking. Might there be a better way to manage Internet service in our mountains, and if so, who could be trusted to run it?

Six years of research, debate, and preparation later, the Town of Estes Park’s municipally owned and operated broadband service, Trailblazer, became the definitive answer to these questions. Estes Park Power & Light, with the new name Estes Park Power & Communications, kicked off the Trailblazer Project in 2019. This month, September, Trailblazer celebrates its fourth anniversary with 780 miles of fiber optic cable (FOC) installed and its final run into Allenspark just around the corner.

But no project this ambitious is absent its challenges. In March 2020, as Trailblazer was in its initial rollout phase, it received some service calls from a handful of its first subscribers in the Carriage Hills neighborhood of Estes Park. The problem was bewildering given the brand-new, stateof-the-art fiber optic network, technology, materials, and EPP&C’s workmanship. The Trailblazer team was baffled.

The key break in the case was an anonymous note that read “Die Internet Die!” near a damaged stretch of freshly laid cable. Careful analysis by the FBI and the University of Colorado determined that the note was written using a quill from a bird feather; specifically, the Northern Flicker. This is a medium-sized migrating woodpecker with a gentle expression and handsome, black-scalloped plumage, identified in flight by a yellow or salmon tint under the wings and a delightful sustained laugh that cunningly disguises a murderous hatred of all things Internet.

Further investigation confirmed that it was the Northern Flickers themselves sabotaging brand-new fiber optic cable. Ornithological experts determined that this particular pecker had suffered a series of bad experiences on social media and was accordingly engaged in a vengeful and sustained anti-Internet crusade (sharp-eyed Wind readers will recall that wild animal conspiracies against we in our mountains are nothing new). Problem now identified, the Trailblazer team sprang into action. A race of wits ensued with the entire intellectual firepower of Estes Park pitted against a bird with a brain weighing approximately 1/20th of an ounce. The birds, predictably, won hands down for the longest time. They burst into especially sustained laughter at Trailblazer’s failed attempts to keep them off the cables by installing dummy owl decoys.

However, it was the Internet itself that won the day for Trailblazer. Customer Experience Manager Kim Smith read on Wikipedia that woodpeckers have a strong aversion to nacho-flavored Doritos. Trailblazer accordingly switched to a type of cable known as “flat drop” and seasoned them lightly with nacho cheese. As a result of this foxy move, the frustrating flickers finally forgo their ferocious but futile fight.

In addition to installing a brand-new, region-wide, FOC infrastructure across EPP&C’s entire mountainous service area smack in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, in its first year Trailblazer had to replace thousands of feet of bird-damaged fiber, cursing the evil flickers with each breath. In the words of Ms. Smith: “We are hopeful that our woodpecker problem is a thing of the past. Trailblazer is delighted to confirm that we are now heading into the final stages of making our super-reliable, super-high-speed fiber optic cable broadband Internet available to anyone who receives power from EPP&C, including our wonderful neighbors in Allenspark. And if anyone wants to purchase a slightly used dummy owl decoy, I have about 6000 of them in my office and they’re available for the low, low price of only $5.99 each. Plus shipping.”

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