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The results of a broadband feasibility study are in for two northern Colorado towns weighing whether to establish municipally run high-speed Internet service. Though the overall recommendations are exploratory, they include hooking up the city’s main resources to fiber and adopting broadband friendly policies, with the possibility of expansion to Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) services down the line.
Weighing the Options
Consultants offered a series of recommendations, all of which involve setting up legislation that incentivizes investment and reduces installation costs, such as a dig once policy, and connecting city infrastructure to fiber. The study suggested three types of actions with varying degrees of involvement from the local government:
1. The city could attempt to persuade incumbent providers to invest in faster, more reliable Internet services.
2. Enter into some sort of public-private partnership in which the cities and the private ISP partner/s co-invest in creating a fiber gig service.
3. Build a municipally run FTTP network.
With any of the options, NEO reps stressed the goal of getting everyone in the town to a gig, what NEO CEO Diane Kruse described as the “gold standard” of capacity.
The consultants affirmed that an FTTP setup would be financially feasible under the right circumstances (found on page 68 of the report) that include a threshold 30 percent take rate for Greeley and 35 percent for Windsor within three years, and at least $5 per customer utility fees. The utility fee model of funding deployment entails customers paying a monthly surcharge to go towards maintenance and construction of the network. With this model, when a higher number of subscribers connect, the fee usually decreases.
Now that they have removed the weight of Colorado’s restrictive SB 152, Greeley is looking forward to future solutions to poor Internet access. In a recent letter to the local Tribune, resident Richard Reilly offered three reasons why Greeley should develop a plan to move toward municipal broadband.
Reilly’s points are:
First and foremost, net neutrality must be at the heart of a municipal broadband. As the big Internet Service Providers start to throttle specific websites that compete or offer tiered packages, Greeley must commit itself to net neutrality. One price for full Internet access. Period.
Secondly, speed needs to be a priority. Comcast and the other ISPs have received billions of dollars to build the infrastructure for gigabit speeds. If Greeley can commit to the infrastructure to offer gigabit speeds, other ISPs will struggle to survive in our city — and good riddance.
Thirdly, customer service is key.
Already On Track
Reilly’s suggestion follows the community’s decision last summer to fund a feasibility study. At the time, they expressed a hope that the study might encourage incumbents to offer better rates and services. In addition to better connectivity for the general public, Greeley’s Family and Recreation Center’s poor Internet access interfered with bookings. When the City Council decided to fund the study, they cited economic development as a key factor in finding ways to improve local connectivity.
Since the City Council’s decision to fund the feasibility study, the FCC has repealed network neutrality protections and is considering lowering the speed definitions of broadband. Reilly writes that Greeley needs to engage in local action:
Greeley is in a unique position to protect its residents from a rogue administration. Despite the fact that a vast majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents support net neutrality rules, the FCC rolled back the regulations meant to protect the freedom to information in this country.
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
Greeley, Colorado, will likely ask voters to consider opting out of state law SB 152 this fall. City Council members from the city of 100,000 people decided on June 6th to join with nearby Windsor (pop. 18,500) to fund a feasibility study, which will be completed this fall.
Almost One Hundred
Ninety-eight communities across the state of Colorado have voted to reclaim local telecommunications authority via the ballot box. In 2005, the state legislature passed SB 152, which discourages public investment in Internet network infrastructure. Even if local communities want to work with private sector partners, they need to present the question or risk running afoul of the state law.
As an increasing number of towns and counties realize that high-quality connectivity will not come from national providers, they are choosing to present the question to the voters. Whether they have immediate plans or simply consider the matter a question of local authority, all have chosen to free themselves from the confines of SB 152. This spring, Central City and Colorado Springs held referendums and both passed the measure to opt out.
Taking It Slow
Greeley isn’t in a rush as it considers a publicly owned solution to their connectivity problems. In September 2016, city leadership decided to take incremental steps and directed staff to research options. According to a Greeley Tribune article at the time:
Councilman Robb Casseday said he was talking with a business considering a move to Greeley recently, and that Internet access was first on its priority list.
"Internet is going to be more and more of a future commodity that is going to be as important, I think, as water and sewer to a municipality," he said.
That's what got him on board with considering making high-speed Internet a city utility.