FORT COLLINS — A new method to install the fiber networks that enable cell-phone technology will shorten the time and reduce the cost of a new network being installed now in Fort Collins.
The company using the new installation method, along with an association of cell-phone service providers, is asking the Colorado Legislature to help standardize building codes across the state to permit faster use of the new technology.
BizWest reported in 2021 that Crown Castle Fiber LLC, a Houston-based company, had received city authorization to install a fiber network in Fort Collins to enable front-line cell-phone providers such as Verizon to expand their services. Installation of the fiber network began last year. About 100 pole locations for fiber equipment have been applied for, and the city has approved about 70.
About two years ago, public affairs director Mark Guillen said, the company began to experiment with a process called micro trenching and learned how it could speed installations, reduce cost and extend the reach of public investment in connecting communities with high-speed networks.
Recent discussions in Fort Collins about cell-service gaps caused by restrictive zoning codes have resulted in city discussion about changing some of those codes to permit cell-tower installation in areas where they were restricted before.
“That’s an issue in many places, not just Fort Collins,” Guillen said. Crown Castle has contracts to build fiber networks in numerous states. In Colorado, it also is working in Aurora and Lakewood on networks that will ultimately benefit Verizon.
“We’re talking about building in Fort Collins, but our build continues on to the next city, which has a different process,” he said. “Development time takes longer than it should, and costs can be prohibitive because of delays,” he said.
That’s why Crown Castle and other infrastructure providers were excited to learn about micro trenching. “It’s a great tool,” Guillen said.
Instead of digging a trench in a street that is a couple of feet wide and three or four feet deep, which can remain open and disruptive to motorists or pedestrians for days, micro trenching provides an alternative.
“We bring in a big circular saw and cut a trench 1½ to 3 inches wide and 6 to 20 inches deep,” said Scott Harry, government affairs manager for the company. “Right behind [the saw], we drop in the fiber conduit then backfill with patented substrates, compact and seal,” he said.
With boring and trenching, the traditional method of installation, “it takes about a week to do 1,000 feet. In a day, we can do 3,000 feet with micro trenching,” Harry said.
In Fort Collins, Crown Castle will install about 100 miles of fiber. While micro trenching won’t work everywhere, using it where possible can reduce the length of the project by as much as half and reduce the cost as much as 85%, Guillen said.
“So it significantly reduces time to lay fiber, it’s less disruptive because the ground isn’t open as long and the truck traffic needed to haul away debris is less. It lowers the cost and lowers the environmental impact,” Guillen said.
He also noted that the federal government’s campaign to connect U.S. communities and rural areas with high-speed fiber can be accomplished faster and at less cost using micro trenching.
“We want to make sure that [the federal investment] is maximized,” Guillen said.
The issue, however, is that not all cities permit use of the technology. “When cities add to their codes, it takes a long time, and not every city will prepare their codes the same way,” Harry said.
“We need a statewide standard in order to deploy fiber across the state quickly; we can’t operate efficiently if we have to abide by numerous local codes,” he said. He noted that Gov. Jared Polis has advocated covering the state with high-speed fiber by 2027.
Crown Castle, the Colorado Wireless Association and multiple cell-phone carriers are working with potential legislative sponsors to enact a statewide standard. Emergency service agencies are also interested because of impacts faster installation could have on their operations.
Harry and Guillen would not name the potential sponsor of the legislation, because the bills aren’t yet written or presented.
As for Fort Collins and elsewhere in Colorado, Harry said work continues and, although Verizon will be the first beneficiary of the new networks, other cell companies such as AT&T and T-Mobile will also benefit. How quickly that occurs depends upon how quickly fiber can be laid and activated.