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Voters in 18 19 Colorado communities chose local telecommunications authority with an average rate of 83 percent. In Fort Collins, voters weren’t swayed by rivers of cash Comcast threw at them in the final month leading up to a ballot issue to pave the way for local fiber optic Internet infrastructure. By a comfortable margin, ballot measure 2B passed, allowing the city to proceed as it examines ways to improve competition and connectivity.
Fort Collins Voters Say Yes To 2B
Voters chose to amend the city charter in order to give the city council the ability to authorize the municipality to offer telecommunications services as a utility, rather than taking the issue to the voters in a separate referendum. The measure passed with a comfortable margin: 57 percent of voters approved the proposal.
The city has been investigating ways to improve connectivity for several years now because CenturyLink and Comcast are only providing a patchwork of substandard services. As a forward thinking community, Fort Collins wants to be sure that they don’t pass up any economic development opportunities. City leaders also feel that a municipal network is best positioned to offer affordable Internet access as a way to create an environment that is equitable and inclusive, especially for Fort Collins schoolchildren. The city is home to Colorado State University, which needs high-quality connectivity for research purposes. When considering the city’s social, economic, and development goals, the future ability to invest in Internet infrastructure makes sense. Comcast sees the measure as potential competition, the ultimate threat.
In order to allow the City Council to, at some date in the future, authorize the city municipal utilities to provide telecommunications services, Fort Collins needs to amend its city charter. Without this amendment, the City Council will need to take the issue to the voters, rather than by granting permission via ordinance. If Fort Collins decides to work with a private sector partner to deliver services, these same restrictions apply.
This November, more Colorado towns and counties will be voting on whether to opt out of the 12-year-old SB 152, a state law that restricts broadband development.
Sweeping Out the Old
Senate Bill 152 has hindered communities’ ability to invest in Internet infrastructure and provide service themselves or with private sector partners. Many communities are realizing that national carriers can’t be relied on to provide high-quality Internet access. To date, at least 98 communities across the state of Colorado have voted to reclaim local telecommunications authority by opting out of SB 152; a handful are considering actually pursuing a publicly owned network.
Opening the Door for Options
For some towns and counties, the ballot question is simply a way to keep their options open and to reclaim local authority that the state took away in 2005. As we’ve seen in Westminister, Maryland, public-private partnerships can be a great option for communities. Being out from under SB 152 will allow these municipalities to explore high-quality network options if the opportunity arises. Additionally, when towns give themselves the ability to explore new providers and different models, current ISPs tend to take notice and adapt accordingly. Beyond these options and ripple effects from shedding SB 152, some towns simply want autonomy and freedom from sweeping state regulation.
In Eagle County, they recognize climbing out from under SB 152 will allow them to consider more substantial steps for taking back local power and implementing a high-speed network. They’ve yet to conduct any feasibility studies but in their yearly Legislative Policy Statement they made it clear that they’re motivated to improve connectivity.
Ushering in the New
As predicted, more Colorado communities are opting out of the state’s restrictive SB 152 that removed local telecommunications authority in 2005. Two more communities have decided to put the question to voters this fall in order to take the reins and reclaim local control.
There are about 53,000 people living in Eagle County, located in the northwest section of the state. The County Commission had considered taking the matter to the voters last fall, but considered the ballot too full with other measures. The town of Red Cliff within Eagle County voted to opt out of the law in 2014. County officials have included telecommunications in their legislative policy statement supporting their intent to reclaim local authority and bringing better connectivity to both urban and rural areas of the county.
Eagle County encompasses 1,692 square miles; much of that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There are several national protected areas within the county. They haven’t established a plan to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, but first want to deal with the issue of opting out of SB 152.
City of Alamosa
Alamosa, county seat of Alamosa County, is also planning on bringing the issue to voters this fall. Like many other communities that have voted to opt out, Alamosa doesn’t have specific plans to invest in infrastructure yet, but they want to have all options on the table.
They’re interested in using existing city owned dark fiber and conduit and exploring possible public-private partnerships, but they’ve not ruled out offering direct services. In a few of the public areas, Alamosa intends to offer free Wi-Fi while they look into possible solutions.
Alamosa is in south central Colorado and home to approximately 8,800 people. The climate is a cold desert where the Rio Grande River passes through town. More than half of county residents live in the city.
Joining An Ever Expanding List
Yesterday, Colorado voters in three counties and five municipalities were asked whether they want to restore local government authority to build or partner for broadband networks. A 2005 law, lobbied for heavily by incumbents, prevents local municipalities from offering telecommunications services, even if they already have the infrastructure in place.
According to the law, local communities can ask voters to reclaim local authority to establish a telecommunications utility. We have seen Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial take action in prior years. In Longmont, the community has successfully established a telecommunications utility and the community is loving it.
An interesting wrinkle in Colorado is the wide support across the state - communities that vote heavily for Democrats supported local authority for municipal networks in similar numbers that those in areas voting heavily for Republicans.
In Yuma County, where approximately 85% of voters supported the GOP Senate candidate, the measure to reclaim local authority passed with 72% of the vote. Yuma County overwhelmingly voted for the Republican candidate for Governor and every race in Yuma County went to a Republican candidate. The cities of Yuma and Wray within the County also had their own ballot initiatives to reclaim local authority; those ballot measures also passed by 72%.
Rio Blanco County's numbers were very similar to those in Yuma County. The only exception was that their ballot question 1A on reclaiming local authority passed with 76%. Again, every race went to a Republican candidate in Rio Blanco County.