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Reflections on Mountain Connect Rural Broadband Conference - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 105
With so many people on vacation this week for Independence Day, we decided to take it easy and reflect on my trip to Colorado to discuss rural broadband at the Mountain Connect conference. Lisa and I reflect on the event and what other states can learn from Colorado.
Though the Colorado legislature previously bowed to pressure from CenturyLink's predecessor to limit local authority, the Department of Local Affairs for the state of Colorado has a smart approach to encouraging rural broadband expansion. Rather than operating in a top-down fashion, it responds to plans that are developed organically by communities working together regionally.
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Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."
Chris Mitchell: If there's anything that I learned from Colorado that was really reinforced, it's that I am in no position to decide how people in Colorado should be investing.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello, and welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
In June, Chris attended the Mountain Connect World Broadband Conference in Vail, Colorado. In addition to enjoying some beautiful scenery, Chris had the opportunity to touch base with local, state, and national colleagues. In this interview, Chris took a few moments to describe the event for us. He shared his impressions, what he learned from friends at the conference, and interesting developments in Colorado. Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial have all decided to take back local authority by referendum. Chris reflects on the state law, and how it has influenced connectivity in Colorado. Events like Mountain Connect bring together the people who will learn the most from each other's experiences. Springfield, Massachusetts, and Mount Vernon, Washington, will each be hosting broadband conferences this fall. Details are available from the presentation tag on muninetworks.org. Now let's hear about Chris' experience in Vail.
Lisa: How's it going, Chris?
Chris Mitchell: Hey, Lisa.
Lisa: So what have you been up to lately?
Chris: I just got back from Colorado.
Lisa: Colorado? What were you doing in Colorado?
Chris: I was there for a broadband event. I know, it may be surprising to you. But I went to Colorado, and I didn't really spend any time outside. I was there at a wonderful event called Mountain Connect.
Lisa: Right. Yes. I think that was in Vail, wasn't it?
Chris: Yes. Vail, Colorado. My first trip to this wonderful resort town came at a time, in the summer, when there was not a lot of snow left, but there was a lot of great people around, talking about access to the Internet in Colorado.
Lisa: So, do they always have this conference there? Why have this conference in Vail, Colorado?
Chris: This is my first time attending it. I've known about this event for a while, and I've always wanted to go. It's a real interesting group of folks. And it's in Vail because it's an event that really draws a lot of people from the mountains. It's the Mountain Connect Conference. And in a lot of Colorado, people have really poor access to the Internet, particularly in the mountains. So they come together in Vail during the off-season to talk about what they can do. And they invite the big carriers, but really it's a show that's -- or a discussion -- more among the communities, county economic development officials, and the local carriers, that really want to invest in the areas. You know, CenturyLink and Comcast will show up, but they're not really interested in doing anything to improve those towns. They're just there because they need to be there, so that they can try to pretend that they're doing a good job.
There's this interesting development where Comcast has been providing transit to the City of Glenwood Springs. And it's a typical customer-client kind of arrangement. And in their presentation, Comcast, I think, wanted some bonus points for working with Glenwood Springs, and so they called it a "partnership."
Chris: Which led me to quip that I partnered with ExxonMobil to get there, you know. I went there to the filling station and ExxonMobil was kind enough to give me back some fuel for some money, and I got up there.
Chris: But we -- yeah. I mean, Comcast was there, and I don't want to run them down -- or CentruryLink down. The simple fact is that these are companies that have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to make, you know, as much money as possible, basically. Which is the system that we live in. And that doesn't involve investing a whole lot, not into rural Colorado. And I can respect that. I just -- I wish that those big companies would respect the fact that others DO need to make that investment, and would get out of the way.
Lisa: So, I understand there's something going on in a town called Steamboat Springs in Colorado. What's that all about?
Chris: From what I understand, Steamboat Springs created a carrier-neutral location for different carriers to come together. In our podcast last week, with Hunter Newby, we talked about these sorts of carrier-neutral spaces and that sort of thing. And I don't want to get into it too much. People should definitely listen to that show if you want to get a sense of why that's important. But it's interesting. And it will be really interesting to see what happens in Steamboat Springs over time, as they have this facility, where anyone can come an connect into each other's networks, and that sort of thing, rather than making it difficult for a local ISP to build the network and then find a way of getting its traffic out to the wider Internet.
One of the things that we see out of Colorado is -- there's a lot of local innovation. There's a lot of different approaches. One of the interesting things that we're seeing out of Colorado is that there's a lot of local experimentation. So, Longmont's going ahead with this gigabit network. They're not delivering video services -- at least television services by a set-top box type of thing. They're allowing people to do over-the-top, and selling a very affordable, a very fast connection.
Centennial, in the Denver region, is looking at what it can do. They passed a referendum already, to be able to take back their authority.
And Montrose, which we've done a podcast of, as well -- they've also passed a referendum and are looking at what they can do with experiments.
So, there's lot of local experimentation, I think, in Colorado that's going to be interesting to keep an eye on. And there's some great collaborations that are coming out of Mountain Connect. There's these groups that we've -- we've talked with people in southwest Colorado and Cortez. Rick Smith. And then there's also Dr. Rick Smith.
Chris: You've talked with him a number of times, and we had to -- we always have to be careful which Rick Smith we're talking about.
Lisa: Um-hum. Um-hum.
Chris: Dr. Rick Smith got an award at this event, because of this great collaboration that they've developed to build this "open access" network in the southwest. It was a very exciting time. And there's a lot of really good people there. And some interesting business models. So, I think, that's the kind of coordination that more states should be doing.
Chris: And we should see other states have these sorts of events, that are really more free-wheeling and open. And so it's a real credit to those who organized it.
Lisa: As far as conversation goes, did anyone bring up the Qwest Law?
Chris: Yes. The Qwest Law came up quite a bit. In fact, just about every presentation had somebody asking about this bill -- this law -- from 2005, I believe. It's called SB 152. And generally, that's how people referred to it -- as "152" or "SB 152." It's a law that's actually -- it's a bit ambiguous, in terms of what it means. So people have different opinions. But it was Qwest's attempt -- Qwest, the company that is now CenturyLink -- their attempt to make sure they didn't have to face any competition from local governments, not because local governments compete unfairly, but because Qwest fundamentally didn’t want to deal with competition from anyone. So they made it their mission to try and make it really hard for local governments to build networks. And when the law passed, it resulted in local governments not being able to do anything. Even -- if you remember -- Longmont, they had to pass a referendum just to use fiber that they already owned -- to use that to offer connections and services to existing companies that really needed a better option. Well, local governments can take back their authority with a referendum.
Lisa: Right. That's what they did in Centennial, not long ago.
Chris: Yes. That's right. So -- and I mentioned that earlier. And so, that's nice. It's -- You know, the Qwest Law has an ability for local governments to reassert their rights, and to not be hobbled by it. But it's very clear that this law has already prevented many local governments from investing in the kind of connections that are needed for better economic development, higher quality of life, and that sort of thing. And it's also reduced, in more stress, in terms of partnerships, figuring out what a local government can do to partner with a local company or cooperative, to expand access. So it's -- the law has had exactly its intended effect. It's prevented communities in Colorado from having better Internet access. And it's allowed Qwest to keep a whole bunch of customers while not investing in better networks for them.
Lisa: In terms of state government, are they only doing things that are restricting local authority? Are they only hurting communities?
Chris: You know, I don't want to give the impression that Colorado is only getting in the way of the local governments and local communities. One of the things that you and I have both done, Lisa, is -- we've looked at states across the country. And how many states would you say are doing something that's really interesting and innovative, and really helping to solve our problem in the United States?
Lisa: Not many.
Chris: Yes. Very few. I mean, the fact that, when a state does anything that's not bad, I think we get very excited about it.
Lisa: Right. Yeah.
Chris: Well, I learned some of the things that Colorado's doing that are very intelligent. And things that other local -- other state governments should learn from.
Lisa: Like what?
Chris: So, for instance, we talked about Dr. Rick Smith, and Rick Smith -- not a doctor but also a very clever man. They built this network in southwest Colorado. Well, they were able to do it because they got substantial assistance from Colorado, the state, from the Department of Local Affairs -- DOLA. DOLA has a really wonderful policy of basically recognizing that communities need better access to infrastructure, and that the communities themselves are best poised to figure out how to do it. So, rather than DOLA basically saying, you-all need to do this, you need to do it that way, and this is the best approach, and we're going to tell you how it is, and we're really smart because we work for the state. Instead, they say -- and this was in the presentation -- you come up with a plan, you bring it to us, if we think it's reasonable, we'll do it. We're not going to tell you how to structure it. We recognize that you have a better sense of what's happening on the ground. And so I think this approach from DOLA has been wonderful. They work regional groups of counties and sort of thing. And they have this process, where they take proposals, and they can help fund them, and they require a local match, and that sort of thing. But fundamentally, this is a locally-driven process. And I think a lot of states really need to learn from that, rather than thinking that just because they work for the state, they know a lot better than local government officials.
Lisa: Right. So, you moderated a panel there. And you made an announcement about the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.
Chris: That's right.
Lisa: Tell us a little bit about it. Right?
Chris: CLIC -- we're CLICkin' right along -- So, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice is something that came about, in part, as a response to these sorts of things, like the SB 152, the Qwest Law, which says -- which makes a hurdle for local governments that want to invest in themselves. But, with Chairman Wheeler's comments coming out so strongly in support of restoring local authority to communities and removing these sort of state barriers, we thought it was really important to rush full speed ahead. So, Chairman Wheeler has been leading on this, and we're very supportive of that. CLIC's role will be to understand what the discussion is about. The discussion is not whether or not local governments should be building networks. The question is: who should decide?
Lisa: ... they know better. The ones who live there know better.
Chris: Exactly. If there's anything I learned from Colorado that was really reinforced, it's that I am in no position to decide how people in Colorado should be investing.
Chris: Whether they should be bonding for Internet infrastructure to work with a partner, or whether they should be working with a partner a different way, or whether they should just be building their own network. I don't know that. And nobody in the capitol of any state really knows that for every community. And so this decision should be made by them.
Lisa: Vail was awesome. Are your going to take your wife and go on a vacation there?
Chris: Well, Vail was....
Lisa: And you are going to be -- this is being recorded, Chris. It will be public. So, if she's listening, she'll have to -- she's got her evidence, right here.
Well, Colorado is setting a great example, it sounds like. And hopefully, other states learn from what they're doing.
Chris: Yes, I think so. And I think one of the things that you and I will do over the summer is elevate up some of these lessons that we're learning from Colorado, and hoping that others take notice and follow along.
Lisa: Sounds great.
Don't forget to check out our stories on Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial on muninetworks.org for more details.
Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. Thank you again to Waylon Thornton for the music. The song is called "Bronco Romp," and it's licensed using Creative Commons. Have a great day.