Boulder, Colorado Gets Ready to Roll on Citywide Fiber Network

Hillside view of downtown Boulder

With the construction of its 65-mile dark fiber backbone nearly complete, city officials in Boulder, Colorado are now ready to move into the next phase of their plan: test the waters for a partnership with private or nonprofit Internet service providers (ISPs) to build out a citywide fiber network to deliver last mile service to the city’s 104,000 residents and businesses.

Last week, the city issued a Request for Information (RFI) “to gauge the interest of for-profit and nonprofit entities in forming a public–private partnership (PPP) with the city to make Gigabit per second-class bandwidth available to all Boulder homes and businesses.”

“As we prepare for further City Council discussion on a future community broadband operating model, it is imperative that we understand the market potential for a PPP (public-private partnership) to meet the city’s goals related to connectivity. We look forward to responses that consider a variety of business models to share technological and operational responsibilities and financial risk with the city in innovative ways,” Innovation and Technology Deputy Director Mike Giansanti said in a press statement when the RFI was issued.

The city is looking for a partner or partners that will come to table with new ideas, create competition, and either fully fund or share costs.

Having prioritized a city-wide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) build, city officials have identified two main goals: serve the growing demand for “affordable, reliable, and sophisticated broadband technology; and support a thriving business environment.”

Responses to the RFI are due by May 19 at 4 pm MDT.

City officials say they will consider a range of construction and operation designs as well as a variety of ownership models as the City Council will likely vote on the path forward and the execution of a contract sometime this year.

And while city officials are currently pursuing the public-private partnership path, they are not ruling out the possibility of creating its own municipal telecommunications utility to deliver last mile service. Or, as the city’s website puts it:

Option 1 is to create a public-private partnership OR option 2 is to create a new municipal internet utility. The City has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to understand market interest in a potential public-private partnership while concurrently investigating financing options for a municipal internet utility.

Fiber Backbone: Springboard for Last Mile Network and More Competition

In 2019, the City Council approved the issue of Certificates of Participation to fund the construction of the network backbone after a competitive sale of its 2018 Broadband Taxable Certificates of Participation (COP’s). The competitive sale was used to ensure that Boulder could get the lowest interest rates possible in financing the construction of the backbone.

Boulder fiber network backbone map

Though Zayo had been contracted to build the backbone in January of 2020, construction was delayed by the onset of the pandemic and didn’t really get started until June of 2020.

Independent broadband consultant Tim Scott, who has been serving as the project manager overseeing the design, implementation and oversight of the fiber backbone network, told ILSR the city was now entering the second phase of the city’s long-term vision.

“The backbone was built with the purpose to serve the city’s requirements but also to serve its longer term vision as a cornerstone for a fiber-to-the-premises strategy,” he said, adding that the $20 million backbone construction project the city financed is about 80 percent complete and is already connecting most of Boulder’s traffic signals, some public safety buildings, and city buildings.

“What we are trying to do in Boulder – if we can find the right partner or partners – is about creating more competition; increase the competitive marketplace locally,” Scott said.

Currently, the city’s broadband market is dominated by a duopoly of Comcast and CenturyLink (Lumen).

“So it’s not that we are unserved. It’s about: how do we improve competition? Because competition drives better results. That’s the aspiration or objective,” Scott said.

That echoes the kind of feedback city officials were hearing back in 2018 when a city survey found that 90 percent of respondents supported the idea of pursuing a municipal broadband approach. It galvanized city leaders to move forward with funding the construction of the backbone network, which is being built using 432-count fiber and is on track to be fully built by the end of this year.

Watch a video of the City’s Chief Information Officer Juila Richman explaining why Boulder is building the fiber backbone:

Remote video URL

Colorado Cultivating Municipal Broadband Ecosystem

Scott said using such a “high density cable” gives Boulder rock-solid options, allowing for the possibility of some of those fiber strands to be sold, leased, or utilized by a private provider or multiple providers.

The RFI was written broadly because “there are so many types of potential partners. There are a lot of flavors of partnerships,” Scott said, explaining why the city started with an RFI and not an RFP.

“It’s hard to write a specific RFP until you explore what kind of partnerships are out there,” he said. “You want your partner, or partners, to be creative and to come up with ideas to drive competitiveness.”

City officials have acknowledged the inspiration they have drawn from the success of the municipally-owned and operated fiber networks in the Front Range region where the cities of Estes Park, Fort Collins, Loveland, and Longmont are now flourishing.

However, Scott said, Boulder wants to first explore a public-private partnership before settling on whether it will pursue a full-fledged municipal broadband approach. He also noted how the Front Range communities with municipal broadband networks had existing municipal electric utilities prior to them getting into the broadband business. In Boulder’s case, no such municipal electric utility exists “so it would be a bigger step” for Boulder to follow the precise path those cities took. Also, he said, since those networks in the Front Range region have been built “the options to partner (with an existing provider) have improved.”

Residential neighborhood in Boulder with Flatirons as backdrop

Building and operating municipal broadband networks are a heavier lift for communities who do not have an existing electric utility, in part because municipal electric utilities own the utility poles and have the experience and personnel to build and operate a utility system.

In fact, most cities that operate municipal broadband networks leverage their electric utility systems to do so. Still, cities like Fairlawn, Ohio have been able to create their own successful telecommunication utility without a municipal electric utility in place.

Estimates by consultants several years ago pegged the cost to build, operate, and maintain a city-wide network in Boulder at about $138 million. However, Scott added, “the city is aware it’s a substantial investment,” which is why “part of the RFI strategy is to get a better understanding of how much it would cost a private provider to build,” especially now that state broadband offices are getting an historic infusion of federal funds to help deploy new networks with American Rescue Plan funds and money allocated in the BEAD program.

With the success of municipal broadband in a growing number of Colorado cities and a new bill being considered by state lawmakers that would remove unnecessary barriers for municipalities who want to build their own telecommunication infrastructure, Boulder and other Colorado communities are in prime position to take control of their own digital futures and provide the kind of ubiquitous access to fast, reliable, and affordable broadband a growing number of Coloradoans demand in the shadow of costly monopoly offerings.

Header image of downtown Boulder as seen from Flagstaff mountain at sunrise courtesy of Flickr user Bo Insogna, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Inline construction map of Boulder fiber backbone courtesy of City of Boulder

Inline image of residential neighborhood in south Boulder below the Flatirons courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)