SHERIDAN — A team of Sheridan entrepreneurs is exploring the possibility of installing an extension of fiberoptic line between Casper and Billings. If it goes forward, the project would increase local recruiting capacity for technical businesses and add resilience to the regional picture of communication infrastructure.
Rocky Mountain Fiber, LLC, was incorporated in January and is registered to Ptolemy Data Systems CEO Ryan Mulholland, who represents the business interests of Ptolemy for the purposes of the project. Ptolemy’s business partners are Sheridan Mayor Dave Kinskey and Joe Sharkey, a consultant from TMNG Global that did several studies in Sheridan last year to determine the city’s infrastructure suitability for business recruitment.
Power rich, fiberless
While Sheridan has a robust and cheap existing power supply, economic development experts have noted a major obstacle to recruiting data centers or similar businesses is the absence of easily accessible fiberoptic lines.
Past efforts have centered on expanding connectivity between several cities in northeast Wyoming. Rocky Mountain Fiber is moving forward on a pretense that the fastest, most efficient way to increase data capacity is to build a pathway between existing hubs in Denver and Billings.
Mulholland said he saw the potential to capitalize on fiber when meetings with other data companies uncovered an unaddressed need. He said most companies are looking for what’s called “dark fiber,” meaning unused fiberoptic line that can be leased by a large carrier and possibly subleased to smaller consumers looking to transfer data.
Sharkey said he saw the same theme replete throughout northeast Wyoming.
“We found that nobody wanted to build it, but everybody wanted to use it,” he said. “So, we started to look at what it would take,” he added.
“We want to provide a big pipe of empty fiber that major carriers can now travel on and deliver services on. That began the idea of what is now Rocky Mountain Fiber,” Mulholland said.
“We provide this big backbone these local incumbent services can use to provide better service to their communities.”
The availability of a blank slate for data transfer is one that can help entice new tech companies to settle in Sheridan. “It’s kind of self-serving in a way,” Mulholland said, acknowledging his own businesses’ interest in the idea. “But on the other side, it’s a very cool economic development tool for all the communities in Wyoming.”
The state of Wyoming recently established guidelines for right-of-way access to add fiberoptic line along existing interstates and those regulations stipulate that any new line installed must have hook-in capacity at each community along its route.
Regional rerouting Existing fiberoptic infrastructure runs along the southern border of the state parallel to Interstate 80, and another main artery in the nationwide fiberoptic communication network exists to the north of Sheridan underneath Interstate 94, which runs between Billings, Mont., and Port Huron, Mich.
‘”What most people don’t realize is there are 11 different routes that travel the I-80 corridor and there are over 100 carriers in those 11 different routes,” Mulholland said, adding that though the southern end of the state has a strong presence of fiberoptic infrastructure, it’s not easily accessible to other operators who might want to hook in. “This was a ‘pass-through’ build,” Kinskey said.
“Wyoming was not considered a data destination, and that’s unfortunate because we don’t have a lot of those major connection points along I-80,” Mulholland said. The state mandates to include accessibility hook-ins all along the line are a distinct departure from the philosophy that motivated the build that took place when the line underneath I-80 was installed.
In addition, the first developer to lay down new fiberoptic line has to make room for those that might follow. “The state requirements are that you have to put in two spare conduits to carry when you install,” Mulholland said, elaborating that the regulation is in place to avoid continuous construction and reconstruction along state interstates.
“Even though we wouldn’t use three conduits, we still have to put in all three.” While Advanced Communications Technology has contracted a project to establish fiberoptic line from an available access point in Cheyenne up to Casper, Rocky Mountain Fiber would pick up where ACT leaves off, in Casper, to finish the route north to Billings. Mulholland explained the venture to build fiberoptic line across much of the state serves the ultimate goal of creating commercial capacity Internet infrastructure between Denver and Billings.
The broad picture of linking the two cities ties in a potential client base of national communication companies. Mulholland explained present fiberoptic infrastructure dictates that data originating from an intermountain location has to take a less efficient route to another hub. “One of the interesting pieces we discovered is you have a lot of carriers and consumers down in Cheyenne and Denver that have to reach places like Seattle and Chicago— two very large communication hubs,” he said.
“What they lack is real resiliency — a fast, resilient path to connect to those locations from even down here.” That’s how the idea to build more dark line began. “We started evaluating what it would look like to build fiberoptic infrastructure that would serve our needs and the needs of the other communities along the route from Cheyenne to Billings,” Mulholland said.
Fiber future or pipe dream?
The proposed venture of Rocky Mountain Fiber is one that carries with it an implication to forever change the conversation surrounding connectivity in the state. The Rocky Mountain Fiber team is hoping to break ground on the project this summer if they can work out details to secure funding. The proposed Denver-to-Billings fiberoptic line is estimated to cost roughly $50,000 per mile, or $16.5 million overall.
Potential funders for the line have not been disclosed. “There’s no guarantee we’ll get to build this, but this is what we’re working on,” Mulholland said. “What we have to do is prove this business case is what we believe it to be. And, until we can prove to ourselves and anyone else who backs us, we’re still in the process,” Mulholland said.
“That’s the fairest way I can put it.” Kinskey noted the need for committed customers before moving forward, rather than hoping they jump on board once it is built. “We will not build this unless we can prove there’s a solid, committed customer base out there,” Kinskey said, referring to the needed buy-in from carriers who would utilize the new fiber.
“From a private business perspective, what you have to look at is how it makes business sense,” Mulholland said. “What makes sense for this is connecting Denver to Billings.” Though still in the planning stages, the fiberoptic pipeline project that would connect two major hubs within the nation is one comprised of a team of business executives.
Kinskey brings decades of Wyoming business experience to the table, while Sharkey is an industry-wide technical guru known for pulling a fiberoptic company out of the clutches of bankruptcy to turn over a profit. Mulholland, the youngster of the trifecta, is the boots on the ground. “The last time I got this excited, I was building a data center,” Mulholland said.
The Sheridan Press
Date posted: April 22, 2014