The massive undertaking of delivering high-speed internet around the country is about more than giving people faster access to information. In rural America, it’s about creating viable employment options in small communities and helping their citizens prosper.
The North Fork Valley on the Western Slope of Colorado is one of those rural, close-knit areas benefiting from the expansion of fiber optics. For more than 120 years, the area’s coal mines have been the main employers for the people living in the area. However, in the last several years, mines in the area have started shutting down, significantly impacting the people living in these coal communities. Forced to look for new occupations, the expansion of America’s vast fiberoptic infrastructure is helping many of those people stay in their homes and is even helping some communities grow.
Meet the Neals
Eric and Teresa Neal, owners of Lightworks Fiber & Consulting LLC have lived in the North Fork Valley most of their lives and are good friends with many of the people impacted by the reduction in coal mining. In fact, after running his own small fiber-splicing business from 1997-2009, Neal took a three-year hiatus to work at one of the area’s coal mines.
“Coal mining provided stability for a lot of people for years,” Eric Neal explained, “but the fiber/telecom industry was always something that I enjoyed doing. So, when an old customer approached me about doing some fiber testing and splicing around the fall of 2011, my wife and I decided it was the right time to get back into the business, and we started Lightworks Fiber & Consulting with our son Dakota Coats.
The new family-owned company started small, primarily picking up where the old company left off — doing fiber splicing. However, Neal knew that if they didn’t focus on growing the size of the company and expanding the number of services they could offer customers, Lightworks Fiber would never be anything more than a subcontractor of a subcontractor. He wanted more.
“Subcontracting is hard, honest work, but we were always at the mercy of a project’s general contractor,” Neal explained. “Planning for that kind of work can be challenging, which can really hold a company back from growing. We focused on building something bigger, so that we would be the one that gets the contracts.”
Starting with just four people doing fiber splices for cell towers, Lightworks Fiber got its first big break around 2014, when the company won a contract to place cable from Omaha, Nebraska, to Kansas City, Kansas. The Neals hired an additional 42 people to help with the work; bringing the company’s headcount to 60.
Lightworks Fiber also won a contract to start running fiber to homes in the North Fork Valley around the same time, which led to an equipment fleet expansion. Neal said they added a small Vermeer trencher, followed by a Vermeer PTX40 plow/trencher, and then a Vermeer XTS1250 ride-on tractor and two Vermeer V8550 trenchers as they picked up more mainline installation work.
Unfortunately, as work was picking up for the Neals, the family’s friends and neighbors that worked at the coal mines were being laid off as several local mines were being forced to close due to the rise of other energy sources. Lightworks Fiber was in need of help, and according to Neal, he knew the work ethic of most of the miners he had spent time with would translate well to the fiber industry. “We hired a bunch of people in our first big growth spurt and continue to add individuals as we’ve ramped up to 130 employees,” he added. “Many of the people we hire didn’t know a lot about telecom, but they were willing to learn and do the work.”
Today, more than 90 percent of Lightworks Fiber’s workforce have ties to mining, and the team works throughout the United States. The company’s services include duct placement, blowing and pulling fiber, fusion splicing and testing. Also, the team just recently got into horizontal directional drilling.
“Since opening our doors, we talked about getting into directional drilling, but we knew we needed to have the right person to get us started,” Neal explained. “We found that person when we hired Larry Daniels. He’s been operating drills for 35 years.”
HDD Creates New Opportunities
Lightworks Fiber purchased two horizontal directional drills a little more than a year ago — a Vermeer D24x40 Series II Navigator horizontal directional drill (HDD) and a Vermeer D16x20 Navigator HDD. The demand for HDD work quickly grew from there, and the company has since also invested in two Vermeer D20x22 S3 Navigator HDDs and a Vermeer D10x15 S3 Navigator HDD.
Lightworks Fiber has all of its drills working near its main office in Hotchkiss, Colorado, and the state’s Western slope. The project that is keeping his crews busy right now is a 32,000-ft fiber installation project. Teams are using a Vermeer D20x22 S3 with Mincon air hammers to work their way through the area’s hard rocky ground. After the pilot bore is complete, they are pulling back Vermeer hole openers to expand the boreholes before pulling back 4-in. fiber conduit.
“We’re drilling in a lot of rock on this project, which is challenging,” Neal explained. “We’re finding that the tooling we use makes a major impact on how productive we are in these conditions. Our representative with Vermeer Colorado has done a great job of helping us identify exactly what we need for tooling It’s really helping us stay on schedule.”
Bringing Fiber Home
For the Lightworks Fiber team, the most rewarding part of their job is bringing high-speed fiber to the North Fork Valley. The local Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) created the company, Elevate Fiber in June 2016 and set an ambitious goal of bringing fiber to valley residents. Lightworks Fiber is handling the bulk of the installation work using its fleet of drills. Neal said it’s some of the most important work they are doing as a company.
“Mine closures had a huge impact on the small towns in the area,” Neal explained. “From the people that worked at the mines to the other small businesses and companies that helped support mining operations, everyone was affected. While we’ve been fortunate enough to bring jobs to some of those individuals, high-speed internet is creating even more opportunities. For the first time in years, our communities are growing. People from the metro area have more flexibility about where they want to live, and they are choosing the valley. We’re proud to be a part of it all.”
The DMEA fiber project is expected to continue for a few more years, and Lightworks Fiber has several other projects happening thanks to Neal’s industry connections. With a customer list that includes companies like the Zayo Group, Facebook, DMEA and Shell, Eric and Teresa Neal hope to continue to create employment opportunities for their friends and neighbors.