Longmont Referendum Take Two: It Starts With a Debate

As we previously noted, the city of Longmont, Colorado, is preparing for a referendum to allow the City to offer telecommunications services to local businesses and residents using a fiber ring it built long ago. This is due to a 2005 law (the "Qwest" law) that was pushed through the Colorado Legislature by incumbents seeking to prevent competition. That law has succeeded -- most Colorado communities can only choose between slow DSL from the incumbent telephone company and comparatively faster services from the incumbent cable company. And when Longmont last attempted to pass a referendum to share its fiber infrastructure with local businesses, Comcast and Qwest swamped the town with unprecedented sums to confuse residents -- leading to the referendum failure with 44% voting yes. But after the referendum passed and people had time to better understand the issue, many who voted against it realized they had been duped. We have seen the same dynamic elsewhere -- in Windom, MN, for example, where the second referendum succeeded. WindomNet has since saved a number of jobs and is expanding to eight other underserved rural communities around it. Longmont built its fiber ring in the late 90's but it still has a lot of unused capacity that could be used to attract economic development if the publicly owned power utility were authorized to offer services to businesses. Without this authority, the community has a valuable asset that they are forced to leave unused -- even as local businesses could benefit greatly from it. The Longmont Times-Call outlined the situation in July:
Without that vote, the city can't let homes or businesses use that fiber without a vote, thanks to a 2005 state law. It's a fight the city's lost once before in 2009, when opponents -- including the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association -- spent $245,513 to urge the measure's defeat. This time out, there's a different tack. The city has been underlining in discussions that the measure would "restore its rights" to provide telecommunications service. And it's stressing that no high-dollar project is on the table -- the first words of the ballot measure now read "Without increasing taxes ...
But Comcast and CenturyLink (previously Qwest) don't want to see their duopoly threatened by a new entrant that will create new competition. So they are again trying to swamp the referendum. The incumbents have already started their FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) campaign. The anti-competition group called "Americans for Prosperity" (that is the short name, the full name is "Americans for the Prosperity of a few Massive Corporations at the Expense of Everyone Else - or AFPMCEEE) is mobilizing its base to oppose the City. Funny how groups that support the most powerful corporations never seem to run short of funds. The incumbents (and their hired minions) are robo-calling many citizens with misleading claims to scare people into opposing the referendum. They are framing it as the city using tax dollars to compete with private businesses to deliver cable services. They may or may not be aware that the City is not going to use tax dollars (ahem, the fiber loop is already built!!) but they will undoubtedly continue using these lies to scare voters. The question is whether people will be swayed by these annoying calls, emails, and glossy mailers or by the debate they had last Friday night. Note: We think having a debate is a great approach to airing pros and cons of broadband investments. We encourage you to record (video if possible, audio otherwise) to make sure people can revisit it as the referendum approaches. Many people are still not even aware of the issue and likely did not attend the debate but will later be curious. Logo - Longmont Power and Communications At the debate, pro-incumbent spokespeople from outside the community came into town to convince others that Longmont should let Comcast and Qwest decide what Internet access is available and on what terms. They made the same old arguments, claiming that "most" of these networks have failed. When pressed, they were unable to offer specifics beyond UTOPIA and Burlington Telecom -- networks that we have demonstrated are not representative of community broadband in general. They also made the same farcical claims that we should loudly laugh at when we encounter them:
"Right now, there's robust competition in wired and wireless," he said. "I'm concerned that when the government gets in, it'll drive away companies instead of attracting them."
Robust competition in wired and wireless??? Longmont has 2 wired choices - crap DSL and slightly better cable. In wireless, we are about to see the market go from 2 big providers and 2 small to 2 big providers and 1 small. Robust??? Longmont Mayor noted that Longmont wants to partner with businesses:
Baum said the city had no interest in being a telecommunications company itself, but wanted to partner with private businesses -- including those opposed to the measure, such as Comcast -- to help connect Longmont homes and companies to the loop. Comcast already leases fiber all over the country, he said; by doing so here, it could bring down its cost of doing business. "I'm a free-market guy," Baum said. "I'm a capitalist pig. We're trying to create competition here."
This is exactly right. Communities desperately want more telecom competition while Comcast and CenturyLink desperately want to limit it in order to maximize their profits. They pretend local governments will "scare" away private investment but we have seen far more investment from the private sector in communities that have built their own networks. If Longmont is allowed to use its fiber to offer services to local businesses, Comcast and CenturyLink are not going to leave town! They will invest more in the network, cut prices, and compete. The crowd supported allowing Longmont to offer services to the private sector:
"You say you want government not to interfere with business," audience member Bernie Stoecker said to Paige and Gifford. "What we've got right now is a state law that interferes with our business." "How is it a risky bet if the infrastructure's here and we're not using it?" someone else asked. "Think of the city as a landlord and owning a commercial building that has offices for rent, but there's a prohibition that says it can't rent space to businesses," Joel Champion said. "We're wasting an asset."
Geek News Central logo Finally, Geek News Central has published an interesting story by Susabelle that explores the issue from the perspective of someone who recently moved to town:
Fortunately, I think people are a little smarter than they were a few years ago.  Every time they write that check to Qwest for $80 for Internet and basic home phone, they wonder if the city offered broadband, would it be a little cheaper?  Maybe a LOT cheaper?  Considering our municipal-run electric utility sells us electricity for about 6.9 cents a kilowatt hour, I can only imagine that the broadband cost might be pretty darned low. And even if it isn’t, and Qwest or Comcast end up being more cost-effective, that’s great for them, and will keep them customers.  If they are worried about losing customers to a cheaper alternative, then maybe they should examine their pricing a little more closely and see if they can find a more competitive pricing structure. I’m hoping that the people of my town don’t fall for the ridiculous counter-advertising that the tel-cos and cable companies will be spreading our way in the next month or so.  I hope they all look at that exceedingly cheap electric bill, do the math, and realize that our little city can give us a much better deal on broadband, the same way they are giving us a much better deal on electric service.
People supporting local authority to use the fiber ring for economic development have set up a website as a hub for information about their campaign - Longmont's Future. Check in there to get more information. Also, Craig Settles interviewed Vince Jordan, CEO of a local service provider RidgeviewTel and supporter of the City in the referendum, on Gigabit Nation. (Audio to come.)