As urban populations increase exponentially, rural communities slowly continue to disappear unless there are significant advancements in connectivity, infrastructure and resilience. One example close to home (here at our HQ in Centennial) is a small Colorado mining town on the road to economic ruin: folks are unemployed, face an increase in closed businesses, being consolidated in underfunded schools and there seems to be no hope in sight. It sounds like an all too familiar end to yet another once-booming Western mining town in Colorado.

Coal miners in the North Fork Valley abruptly found themselves unemployed over a period of time between 2014 and 2016. After two of the county’s three coal mines shut down, many of the close-knit towns in the valley faced a grim economic reality. During this time, Teresa Neal and her husband heard about the layoffs and saw an opportunity. Their fledgling company that was struggling to get off the ground, Lightworks, began bidding and eventually winning contracts offered by local electric utility companies looking to stretch broadband to thousands of homes and businesses. The utility companies saw that coal was becoming obsolete, so broadband was the key to economic success and livelihood for the valley. Ultimately, can a small town not just survive, but even compete in today’s economy without solid access to the internet?

Rural Americans have been left behind when compared to more and more urban environments where internet speeds are faster and access is easier. So, the Neals took full advantage of the opportunity to get small, local business into the new lifeblood of their valley community. They transformed their barn into a temporary training facility for former coal miners for the electric broadband-based economy. They began teaching them about fiber, how fiber worked and how to splice it. Now, Lightworks has hired more than 80 former coal miners and re-trained them to work with fiber optics, increasing high speed internet across towns and, most importantly, economic opportunities where things looked hopeless.