Colorado Repeal Of Community Broadband Ban A Turning Point Decades In The Making

Colorado State Seal

Colorado state leaders have voted to eliminate long-criticized state barriers to municipal broadband networks. Community broadband advocates hope it will be a beacon for other states eager to bring more reliable and affordable high-speed Internet service to a market long dominated by monopoly providers.

The Colorado decision, made after years of citizen backlash to the counterproductive restrictions, is the latest inflection point in a retreat away from monopoly-backed state laws stifling creative efforts to bridge the digital divide.

On May 1, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 23-183. The new law formally eliminates an older 2005 law backed by regional telecom monopolies, which imposed cumbersome and onerous restrictions on Colorado towns and cities looking to build better, more affordable community-owned and operated broadband networks.

“SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the Governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027,” Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter said of the decision. “Each local government is in a unique position or different phase of connecting residents to high-speed internet, and this bill allows them to establish broadband plans that meet the needs of their communities.”

Colorado state leaders say the repeal puts them in a prime position to capitalize on numerous digital equity programs designed to address Colorado’s digital divide, as well as the more than $42 billion in broadband subsidies soon to be distributed courtesy of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

“With large amounts of federal funding coming from the IIJA bill, we wanted communities to be ready to receive this money,” Colorado Representative Brianna Titone told ILSR.

Last year, Governor Polis signed an executive order formally setting a goal of connecting 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027. Colorado state leaders have previously stated they expect their share of IIJA/BEAD funding to be between $400 and $700 million; money that can now be used more broadly on a diverse array of creative broadband solutions.

Colorado Proved Highly Resistant To Monopoly Meddling

Frustrated by high broadband prices, poor customer services, and a dearth of competition, cities across the country have spent much of the last two decades building popular alternatives to telecom monopoly power. Such networks have taken on a variety of forms, from cooperatives and municipal builds to city-owned utilities and public private partnerships.

Threatened by this rise in competition, regional telecom monopolies responded not by building better, more affordable networks, but by suing municipalities. They also pushed to pass state laws in more than twenty states, usually ghost written by their own lawyers, designed to derail popular community-based options among long neglected municipalities.

Colorado state house

Colorado’s SB152 was passed in 2005 after intense lobbying pressure by Comcast and Centurylink. The law required local municipalities to hold costly referendum elections to pursue municipal broadband. But unlike similar anti-competition laws in other states where municipal broadband is outright banned or made impossibly difficult to pursue, Colorado’s restrictions came with a useful catch: towns and cities could opt-out of the law with a majority vote.

Coloradans took full advantage. Before the law was repealed last week, more than 121 cities and towns had already voted to opt-out of the law. Incumbent telecom monopolies like Comcast for years had used unlimited marketing budgets to misinform, frighten, and mislead voters, often by falsely claiming that community built networks were uniquely dangerous boondoggles.

Coloradans again proved highly resistant to such tactics.

In 2011, residents of Longmont, Colorado successfully voted to opt-out of SB152’s restrictions. Despite misleading PR campaigns by Comcast, Construction of Longmont’s Nextlight fiber network began in 2014, and within a few years, the city was winning awards for delivering affordable fiber access, inspiring other Colorado communities to follow suit.

Fort Collins Connexion logo

When Fort Collins, Colorado debated letting the local city-owned utility provide broadband in 2017, Comcast spent more than $901,000 in a bid to mislead voters and impact the vote.

Despite local grassroots organizations spending little more than $15,000 on a counter-campaign, Fort Collins voters overwhelmingly approved construction of the network.

Fort Collins’ Connexion broadband service went live in 2019, and now provides area residents with fiber broadband access that’s consistently faster and cheaper than monopoly alternatives. Other Colorado cities are keen to follow suit, with 82 percent of Denver residents voting in 2020 to pre-empt state restrictions on community broadband.

State leaders say that with SB152 dead, municipalities interested in building their own broadband networks no longer have to waste valuable time and taxpayer resources fending off well-funded PR campaigns intended to confuse voters and demonize popular, community-owned alternatives.

“Without this bill to remove the restrictions, local governments would waste time and money to get a vote to allow them to own broadband infrastructure,” Titone said. “The reason this is important is because the federal guidance on who can apply for grants goes beyond the state to local municipalities.”

Colorado-based municipal broadband providers were also unsurprisingly pleased by the repeal.

“We’re excited to see the legislature take this long-overdue step, freeing Colorado’s communities to make the broadband choices that will serve the needs of their homes and residents,” Nextlight executive Director Valerie Dodd said in a statement. “Longmont has repeatedly shown its support for the local, high-quality internet solutions that NextLight provides, and we look forward to seeing the increased opportunities that will now be open to all Coloradans.”

17 States Still Have Restrictions Despite WA, CO, and AK Retreat

Colorado’s decision to eliminate 18-year-old community broadband restrictions is a direct reflection of a monopoly-busting reform movement decades in the making. Municipal broadband networks have widespread support by a bipartisan majority of frustrated Americans, something usually not reflected in state or federal telecom policy decisions.

Across Colorado, a duopoly composed of Comcast and Centurylink (Lumen) has consistently resulted in spotty coverage, high prices, slow speeds, abysmal customer service, and some of the worst customer satisfaction ratings in any industry. Colorado voters have repeatedly made it clear they’re keenly interested in challenging this very profitable, very broken status quo.

girls in parking lot

The home education and telecommuting boom during Covid lockdowns only further highlighted telecom market failure. Photos of children huddled in the dirt outside of fast food restaurants to attend online classes showcased the real-world impact of unchecked monopoly power, and how state restrictions on community broadband were harmful and counterproductive.

In response, Arkansas and Washington state eliminated their state restrictions on community broadband in 2021. With Colorado’s full retreat from its own unpopular law, 17 states still have some form of meaningful restrictions in place either restricting funding for community broadband networks, or blocking construction entirely.

Industry watchers worry such restrictions could hamper state and county abilities to make the most of an historic influx of broadband funding made possible by Covid relief and infrastructure legislation. With any luck, Colorado’s decision to strip away pointless restrictions will prove an inspiration to the states that still have preemption laws that target municipal broadband initiatives, leaving many of its residents on the wrong side of the digital divide.