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For nearly a decade, voters across Colorado have made it clear that when it comes to having access to high-speed internet service in their businesses and homes, they want all options on the table.
Elections in county after county and city after city across the state have cast aside a 2005 state law that prohibits local governments from using taxpayer money to build their own broadband networks but allows communities to opt out of those restrictions at the ballot box.
During last month’s election, 19 more cities and counties — including Vail, Louisville and Kremmling — chose to override Senate Bill 152, bringing to 116 the number of Colorado municipalities and counties to do so since Glenwood Springs voters cast the first vote on the issue in 2008.
Colorado Municipal League deputy director Kevin Bommer said industry players haven’t been willing or able to extend their data pipes to all corners of the state, leaving many parts of Colorado — especially rural areas — with substandard connection speeds that make it hard to do business and enjoy high-bandwidth experiences such as Netflix viewing or online gaming.
“People, businesses, schools and rural hospitals are getting left behind,” he said. “When the private sector cannot or will not provide the service, the law allows for local governments to look to find a way to do it.”
But simply overturning the 2005 law — it was backed by cable and internet providers in the name of maintaining a level playing field in the deployment of expensive fiber-optic networks — doesn’t mean publicly funded broadband will suddenly appear. For most cities and towns, high cost, rough topography and dispersed populations make going it alone on construction of a high-speed network too tall an order.
Which is why some communities are finding that the best way to get moving on high-speed internet is to find a partner in the private sector — be it giant telecoms such as CenturyLink or any of a number of tiny rural phone companies — to share the costs and risks of building a fiber-optic network.
That’s what Wray, a city near the Nebraska border, is doing. Having done away with the 2005 law three years ago, it is now working with the Plains Cooperative Telephone Association to give its 2,300 residents access to affordable high-speed connections.
The city is spending $1.4 million — half of it from state grants — to put in 14 miles of “middle mile” fiber-optic in Wray, while Plains Cooperative takes care of the “last mile” connections to homes and businesses. The network should be complete by next year.
“It’s a unique opportunity to form partnerships that will improve service that could never happen if (SB) 152 was still in place,” Wray City Manager James DePue said. “If we didn’t do something, Wray’s business district would totally dry up.”
Plains Cooperative said it took coming together with Wray to make the project financially feasible for both sides.
“It took those additional funds to make it a workable business plan,” said Ronny Puckett, general manager of the 65-year-old Joes-based company.
On the Front Range, Centennial is also turning to the private sector for development of its fiber-optic network. The city is building an internet line to connect city offices and businesses, but for residential service it is leaning on third-party services, such as Ting Internet, to handle the last mile.
Ting, which is pitching residential 1-gigabit-per-second service starting at $90 a month, has hosted community sessions and is accepting pre-orders. But so far, no launch date has been set, a company official said.
On the Western Slope, Rio Blanco County has made a successful foray into municipal broadband, offering 1-gps service to its 6,500 residents across a sparsely populated 3,200-square-mile area that borders Utah. The $12 million effort is county-led but involves contracts with a network operator and two local internet service providers.
“What most counties are seeking is a public-private partnership where the county can help with the middle mile that will then attract an internet service provider to hook up their communities,” said Eric Bergman, policy director with Colorado Counties Inc. “The vast majority of counties do not intend to get into the broadband business.”
But some cities have.
Many point to Longmont, with its 1-gps NextLight internet service, as the city with the most aggressive response to an SB 152 opt-out vote. Residents there voted to override the state statute in 2011.
Now the city serves 17,000 residents and businesses with some of the highest internet speeds in Colorado — at a base price of $50 a month.
“Cities don’t do this because they want to compete with the incumbent — they do it because the incumbent refuses to,” said Tom Roiniotis, general manager of Longmont Power & Communications, which runs the network. “We didn’t have any interest (in network construction) from the private sector. Lifting the burden of (SB) 152 gives you the opportunity to explore those options.”
The Delta-Montrose Electric Association is heading up its own multiyear effort to build a high-speed fiber-optic network for the 28,000 residents it covers in southwest Colorado. Much of Delta and Montrose counties — including Paonia, Crawford, Delta and Cedaredge — cast off the state-sanctioned restrictions in the fall of 2015.
Virgil Turner, director of innovation and citizen engagement for the city of Montrose, said the churn of voters across the state overturning SB 152 amounts to a “rallying cry” for Coloradans desperate for an amenity that for many has become as vital as electricity and phone service.
“We’re not going to stand by as a city and allow our businesses and residents to fall behind Front Range communities,” Turner said.
Montrose’s electric utility says on its website that it will take six years to fully build the network, which it is calling Elevate Fiber. Speeds of 100 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second will be offered. Talks with Charter Communications and CenturyLink about lighting up both counties with high-speed connections bore no fruit, Turner said.
“Our goal is ubiquitous fiber to the premise,” he said. “And we want a price point that is affordable.”
Mark Soltes, CenturyLink’s assistant vice president in Colorado for public policy and government affairs, said the gaps in service across the state are due to rugged landscapes and far-flung population centers.
“You’re looking at deployment in some places where there’s no payback,” he said.
Soltes said his company is discussing public-private partnerships with municipalities in Colorado, although he wasn’t ready to disclose specifics. CenturyLink, he said, has reached a deal with a neighborhood in Granby to provide high-speed internet to the 250 homes that will one day be built there.
Soltes said SB 152 is meant to prevent municipalities from using taxpayer money to unfairly crush private-sector competition or unnecessarily duplicate fiber-optic where companies have already spent millions putting a network in place.
Cities and counties have an inherent advantage over the private sector because they often own the right-of-way where the industry lays its conduit, he said.
“Your competitor is your regulator, too — that’s an unlevel playing field,” he said.
Pete Kirchhof, executive vice president of the Colorado Telecommunications Association, said voters need to know what they are getting into before committing millions of dollars to build a municipal fiber-optic network. SB 152 opt-out language, he said, is often “very generic” and rarely addresses cost, price, debt and risk.
“Long-term sustainability is the question. You can’t just throw fiber in the ground and be done,” Kirchhof said. “These are very expensive and complex networks that require constant maintenance and upgrades.”
Greeley is taking the extra step of spearheading an online survey of its residents — who last month voted to override the state-imposed restrictions — about whether they would be willing to team up with nearby Windsor to provide a gigabit service such as Longmont’s or whether a joint broadband effort with the private sector is the better route.
That kind of data could have been helpful in expediting the efforts of Glenwood Springs — which did away with SB 152 limitations nine years ago — to build out its Community Broadband Network. Run by the Glenwood Springs Electric Department, the network provides broadband to nearly 250 businesses but hasn’t been linked to residences yet.
Mayor Mike Gamba said the Great Recession curtailed network plans for years and that previous city councils didn’t make the initiative the high priority it needed to be. The city is getting back on track now, with plans next year to spend $320,000 on the first phase of its strategic broadband plan.
“Councils change, priorities change — you have to have a concerted political will,” he said. “By voting for the opt-out doesn’t make it immediately happen.”