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Colorado's Unique Environment of Local Collaboration - Community Broadband Bits Episode 178
A few weeks back, Colorado voters overwhelmingly chose local authority and community networks over the status quo Internet connections. Approximately 50 local governments had referenda to reclaim authority lost under the anti-competition state law originally called SB 152 that CenturyLink's predecessor Qwest pushed into law in 2005.
This week, Virgil Turner and Audrey Danner join us to discuss what is happening in Colorado. Virgil is the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose and last joined us for episode 95. Audrey Danner is the Executive Director of Craig Moffat Economic Development and co-chair of the Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference. We previously discussed Mountain Connect in episode 105 and episode 137.
In our discussion, we cover a little bit of history around SB 152 and what happened with all the votes this past election day. We talk about some specific local plans of a few of the communities and why Colorado seems to have so many communities that are developing their own plans to improve Internet access for residents, anchor institutions, and local businesses. Over the course of this show, we also talked about Rio Blanco's approach, which we discussed previously in episode 158. We also discuss Steamboat Springs and previously covered that approach in episode 163.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."
Audrey: We know this infrastructure is what we need for the future.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello and welcome to episode 178 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. November elections were an incredible event for Colorado communities seeking to take back local telecommunications authority. Over 40 communities chose to override a 10 year old state law that blocked them for investing or partnering with private sector providers to improve local connectivity. Most communities approve the ballot questions with overwhelming majorities.
Virgil Turner and Audrey Danner talk with Chris this week. Virgil is the director of innovation and citizen engagement in Montrose, Colorado, and Audrey is the executive director of Craig Moffat Economic Development. Audrey also co-chairs the mountain connect broadband development council. Every year the council holds the mountain connect broadband conference.
In this episode Audrey and Virgil reflect on the results of the election and share what's next for these communities as they take advantage of their newly required local authority. Here is Chris visiting with Virgil Tuner and Audrey Danner.
Chris: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, I'm Chris Mitchell, and today I’m speaking with Virgil Turner, director of innovation and citizen engagement with the city of Montrose in Colorado. Welcome to the show.
Virgil: Hey Chris, it's great to be with you and your listeners today.
Chris: And we're also speaking with Audrey Danner, the executive director of Craig Moffat Economic Development and co-chair of the wonderful Mountain Connect Broadband Development conference. I'd like to welcome you to the show as well.
Audrey: Thank you
Chris: We've talked about a number of these issues in Colorado. Virgil, we've actually talked with you in the past, and we've talked often about how much we love the mountain connect even so its great to be talking about Colorado again with you guys. I think I'd like to start by just asking you, has anything recently happened that's interesting in the space of community networks in Colorado? Audrey, let me ask you.
Audrey: Yes, I would say recently on the November 3rd election there were 43 entities around the state of Colorado that asked for a repeal of senate bill 05152, which is legislation that notes that local government must have permission form the voters to get involved with the development and provision of telecom services, and so many communities have previously in the elections leading up to November 3rd and then the November 3rd there were 40 that were successful in overcoming this piece of legislation that is seen as holding back communities.
We know that we have been waiting for private companies to resolve this lack of high speed internet, advanced telecommunications broadband, if you will, and there really isn't a way to build a business case especially in there areas that Virgil and I live in, in the northwest and western part of Colorado, so that we have to develop our own public private partnerships or our own solutions should the local government choose to create an enterprise of broadband services.
Chris: Right, and Virgil, I think we may have actually found a few more, I mean, its hard to divide up what the numbers was from what I could tell. We put a list together that basically just publicized a list that you had put together, your assistance was invaluable. Did anything surprise you on that election day?
Virgil: I was pleasantly surprised by the number. Those numbers are continuing to grow. I think the last count I had was that we're up to about 48 cities, towns, and counties throughout the state. Towns as big as Fort Collins and as small as Ophir Colorado, so there is a huge outpouring of support for these ballot measures to take back control of our destinies with regards to broadband.
Chris: There was, I think, two things that were particularly interesting. One was that it just passed with this overwhelming support and I'd like to ask if each of you if you, coming into it, did you expect that every single one of them would pass with more than a 2/3rds majority? Some of them with 4 out of 5 people voting in favor
Audrey: In Moffat county we were 70 and 73% with the city and the county approving this and that is a very overwhelming statement in a very rural conservative community, but I can see that the community understood the need for... we need this infrastructure for our future. I believe that its also worth noting that the Colorado municipal league has written letters of support for repeal of this state wide piece of legislation and a Denver post wrote an editorial in support of the repeal of senate bill 05152.
Chris: Virgil, let me ask you what you expected going into that day.
Virgil: We've seen over the course of the past few election cycles the overwhelming approval from these communities, so I was not surprised at all by the level. We had some that were up in the high 80's and 90% in some communities so that was a little surprising, I was thinking we'd see a lot more in the 70 range, but many were in the 80's. I think this is indicative of the concerns that we have seen after the 2015 general assembly. As Audrey eluded to, there was efforts for some very modest changes in 2015 to have bill introduced that would reduce the need for communities to go out and hold these elections even to enter in the public private partnerships, do away with any concern about offering WiFi in your public buildings, and we thought the language for the bill was going to be fairly palatable to all parties.
Chris: That's a nice way of saying lobbyists who are payed to obstruct anything that would get in the way of a Century Link or Comcast monopoly.
Virgil: Yeah, we think that the bill could have passed through the house that we talked to senate leadership and it was very obvious that the bill would never get out of senate committee. So that effort that we out into that, and it was a lot of effort out into it lead to some extreme frustration in the state, in cities and towns and counties. We're not going to be able to make a change at the state legislature so we're going to have to take this on ourselves.
Chris: I'd like to dive in to what some of the specific communities are planning on doing. My impression is that there's an overwhelming number of communities, some of the communities are just looking to make plans in the future and some of them already have definite plans. Audrey, you're from part of Colorado where we've seen some pretty impressive results already from communities that had previously reclaimed authority. Rio Blanco, we did a podcast with them and we talked with some of the folks from Steamboat Springs as well, which I understand are right by you up in there in Moffat county. In just curious if you can tell us anything about what's in store for your region.
Audrey: I'm pleased to tell you that Moffat county has watched very carefully and seen the transformation in Rangely and Meeker and Steamboat, and communities in route in Rio Blanco county, our neighboring county. So we are at the point, in Moffat county, are developing a broadband plan, and that will have some various solutions for our communities of Craig and Dinosaur and then the unincorporated community of Maybell, that we will look at options that we have because we know this infrastructure is what we need for the future and there just hasn't been a business case for private providers to go it alone. So with the fact that this is the central infrastructure we will be moving forward.
I will tell you that we had unexpected assistance on our 1A and 2A ballot initiative override at 152, during the summer and fall, we had in northwest Colorado several significant fiber cuts that really highlighted two things. Our reliance on the telecom infrastructure, whether you were a hospital wanting to transfer x-rays or a bank, demonstrated our lack of redundancy here. So those are efforts that Moffat county will be focused on because we border Wyoming and Utah, so as we get out into those other states that's important that we have infrastructure that keeps us up to speed with our neighboring counties and states.
Chris: Virgil, let me ask you if there's any particular ones, perhaps nearby, that you would like to highlight.
Virgil: Early on we felt that we needed to disrupt the cost model, the competition model, for broadband within our region to really reap the benefits, and so we've been working on a regional effort, this includes 6 counties, huge geographic area, lots of very small cities and towns. Montrose is the largest within the region at 20,000 population. We have counties that go down to less than 1,000 population. So we have been focused on the ideas that we must reduce your cost through ownership and partnership of the long haul lines that get back to internet points of presences and Denver and Albuquerque, perhaps even Salt Lake City.
The most recent plan that we're working on is to acquire long term leases or I.R.U.'s, indefeasible rights of use, for fiber that allows us to obtain the commodity of internet over lines that we now have control of. We do not... We've reduced our transport costs, and so in some places we were seeing $30 to $50 per meg per month or internet services... we are working on our plan once its implemented which we're starting on this spring. We will have, throughout our region, prices down to $2 or less per meg. Internet service providers were restricted from putting capital investment into our communities, communities where they own their business and are trying to provide services that are not being provided by the incumbent industry and we were hoping to be able to bring down their whole sale cost and in turn they would be able to turn around and put more money into our communities through capital investment.
Chris: One of the things that I notice when you're discussing the strategies is that they seem to be more regional in nature then I often hear from local officials or people from communities and, Virgil, I'm curious if you could tell us a little bit about where you think that might come from. Why are things in Colorado? why are these different counties and communities so likely to work with each other?
Virgil: Maybe it goes back to football rivalries between towns, in the past we've seen a lot of competition between communities. We've found that these projects, these initiatives, are so expensive we have to tackle them as a larger group, and that's been a fairly recent paradigm shift for us. We've seen it in other initiatives such as energy as well, these projects are way to large for any community to gain the benefit and to take advantage of the assets that are out there. The dark fiber assets, for instance, we're working with a multi-state generation and transmission company who has owned dark fiber assets for 20 years or more. Many of their assets remain dark, we have identified those and reached out to them. I think while we started off working, as Audrey mentioned, local technology planning teams, it became very apparent that we were not going to be able to do this community by community. Its going to require, for success, to be able to work, is larger regions.
We're even seeing regions looking at how regions can work together. For instance, the southwest corner of Colorado is doing some great things, but they need access through our region to other assets in Denver and so forth. So we're looking at how we can partner even as regions as these projects build out.
Chris: Audrey, what can you add on to why we see so much collaboration coming out of these Colorado communities?
Audrey: Our department of local affairs, the Colorado state office, has really emphasized regional planning and they will offer some assistance with regional infrastructure because they know going town by town you don't always have a patchwork quilt that fits together. In the past when railroads and rural electric electrified our nation, they had to take the bigger picture in mind and that's what we're finding with the "how do we do the back call?", the "middle mile", and then getting into our communities and getting around our communities. So I see some commonalities but it... linking us all together for those increased capacity and decrease of cost, but we have to pay attention to... what is the future of this? when several of us who've been working in this since 1990 and realized we're discussing additional fax lines years ago and now we're talking about broadband services. So voice, video, and data has changed and is changing but we're going to have to remain flexible so that we get the infrastructure in place so we'll be easily adaptable. So we appreciate our local government at the state level, really encourage local governments cooperating and there are folks like Virgil Turner who are wonderful resources for myself and others.
Chris: I'm curious if there's something in the water coming down off the mountains because there's a lot of places in the United States where there are small towns, even if you want to get into towns that are in mountains, in other states, and we don't see that same kind of appetite for saying "We're going to take a local role". In many ways Colorado is what I want to see, is what we support, the institute for local self reliance, which is communities that are standing up and staying "We're going to figure out how to make sure we have the networks that we need". But its not something that we see everywhere, and I'm just curious if you think there's something that will explain why there's so much interest in Colorado around this matter.
Virgil: We, especially folks in rural Colorado in the west, live in a truly amazing place. We came here not because of high paying jobs but because we just love where we live and we want to raise our families here and I think this issue, more than many issues that we deal with really threatens that lively hood, that way of life that we have. We live in a connected world that we have to have that access, the business that are in our communities must have that for economic growth. When they compete in the global market, we have to have the same level of service that you could get in the front range of Colorado or a large urban area.
Chris: Let me ask you to push back on that a little bit because I would say that you could say the same thing about communities in western Minnesota, and yet we don't see most of them thinking out side the box. There's certainly some, but it seems to me that for every 1 that's thinking outside the box in terms of how to solve this problem and looking local strategies, there's 10 in Colorado.
Virgil: I moved here from the Midwest, it’s different in Colorado. We tend to, not necessarily stop at obstacles, but we go around them. We find a way to make what we need to have happen, happen. Whether that's something indicative in others, I'm not sure, but I know that there is a special spirit in Colorado, especially western and rural Colorado that we just don't take "No" for an answer. If we need something, we're going to make it happen.
Chris: Audrey, do you have any additional insights as to why we're seeing so much motivation in Colorado to solve this problem locally?
Audrey: Also, the support of Colorado Counties, Inc. which are the counties associations and Colorado municipal league, they have put forth effort to support their membership of cities and counties, and then the state government that just absolutely supports what all of us at the local level are trying to do.
Virgil: And Chris, I think I would point out, I think Mountain Connect has done wonders for this effort in Colorado, in fact we had a Sunday night round table before the conference last year in which communities throughout the state where talking about what they were intending to do as far as broadband. A lot of first time attendees at the conference last year, and it was overwhelming sitting in the room looking at the folks that were raising their hands that said that we're going to go forward with a ballot issue to exempt ourselves from 152. Its was overwhelming. That conference has really been at the arrow head of this movement in Colorado. It has grown exponentially over the last few years.
Chris: That's actually something I was hoping we would mention because I've been to a lot of events and I have to say that there is something special about Mountain Connect. I think that's why we're stating to see more people from even outside Colorado coming into it. Minnesota also, we just had a great event here, put on by the Blandin Foundation, and I think its really great when states have something like that, that a local issue where they can get together and even without people like me in the room, they can talk amongst themselves about the strategies they see are working and that sort of thing. I definitely think that that has a big part to do with it and I think the particular spirit of Mountain Connect which invites all kinds of people of all different perspectives is very helpful too.
Let me ask of there's any closing thoughts as we end the show. Audrey is there anything that you wanted to make sure we said before we sign off?
Audrey: I would thank you, Chris, for the ability to open up this conversation because that's how it starts on a local level here in Colorado and we talk to our counterparts in different areas of the state, we talk at mountain connect, and then we talk to others around the United States, and I think its important that we have good conversations of "What can you do?" That is indicative of what we're trying to do, not one cookie cutter approach of "Everyone has to follow this format" we are finding those unique aspects of each community, like the carrier neutral location and the Steamboat vs. the wireless in Rio Blanco county. We are changing our high speed internet and telecom infrastructure. I look forward to continuing discussions at Mountain Connect which will be June 5th-7th in Keystone, Colorado. So thank you Chris.
Chris: We get to check out a new place!
Audrey: Yes, and we have a new website, mountainconnect.org. It's improved communication.
Chris: Excellent. Well I'll be looking forward to that and you can count on me to do everything I can to get there. Virgil, any closing thoughts?
Virgil: I would encourage you and your listeners to continue watching what is happening in Colorado, especially with our project in region 10 and the city of Montrose. I think it is going to produce some great models for cooperation.
Chris: Excellent. Well thank you so much for coming on. I think this is just so exciting to see so many communities in Colorado, and I'm sure this isn't the end, I'm sure there's a lot more people who are being inspired now. So we'll see where it takes us and we'll talk with you on a future show about it. Thank you.
Audrey: Thank you Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Virgil Turner, director of innovation and citizen engagement in Montrose, Colorado and Audrey Danner, executive director of Craig Moffat Economic Development and co-chair of the Mountain Connect Broadband Council. As projects continue to come ahead in Colorado we will certainly bring you developments. Follow us on Twitter, our handle is @communitynets. Find us on Facebook, we are Community Broadband Networks. We also have a new Twitter account, its called @muninetworks. Send us your ideas for the show, email us at podcast.uninetworks.org. We want to thank Arnie Huesby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 178 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.