Fort Collins, CO, Considering November Ballot Measure

After tentative plans to work with a private sector partner fell through, Fort Collins is still moving forward. The city wants the option to provide residents and businesses with gigabit connectivity as a municipal service, necessitating a ballot initiative in November to change the city charter. The ballot initiative would allow the Light and Power Utility to provide Internet services and may also ask voters to consent to use municipal bonds to fund the Internet network infrastructure project.

The city estimates the project will cost between $125 million and $140 million and will cover the entire city and its “growth management area,” which is land that is expected to be annexed in the future.

A Long And Winding Road

In 2015, voters in Fort Collins reclaimed local authority by opting out of SB 152, which discourages cities from investing in Internet infrastructure in order to offer services themselves or with private sector partners. The pro-local sentiment was so popular that 83 percent of voters supported opting out.

From there, the city pursued a partnership with Axia. However, the Canadian company pulled out of discussions with Fort Collins and a similar deal with Bloomington, Indiana. Axia’s parent company, Partners Group, was reportedly hesitant to enter the U.S. market and compete with large, incumbent providers Comcast and CenturyLink. Axia Networks USA was operating MassBroadband 123 in Massachussetts and filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, leaving the state searching for another company to manage the statewide fiber-optic network.

The city is still open to partnering with a private sector partner, but is leaning toward providing services through their existing Light and Power Utility. We've seen other deals between municipalities fall apart when they seemed like sure things, which indicates that municipalities must always take care when establishing a relationship with a potential partner.

Santa Cruz and Cruzio were well on their way to entering into a partnership, but the project did not materialize. In Urbana-Champaign in Illinois, the partnership ended when iTV3 sold its assets, leaving the communities to the devices of the new partner. There are partnerships that can be mutually beneficial, as in the case of Westminster, Maryland, but each community needs to vet their partner and then vet some more. The reality is that partnerships involve risk.

City Looks To Provide Services

While the city is open to partnerships with incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs), it appears to favor offering services itself, citing a desire for local control and better customer service. Council Member Ross Cunniff discussed residents’ desire for city-provided Internet services:

“When I talk to citizens, really the main question on their minds isn’t should we, it’s “Why haven’t you gotten around to doing it yet?’ I think it’s time for us to get around to doing it.”

Deputy City Manager Jeff Mihelich also highlighted the urgency of constructing the network:

“We think right now is the time to get in, get the fiber in place, to build the system and future-proof it so that way, when the speeds increase over time, it will be right for it.”