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Blue River, Colorado (est. pop. 882) is the latest Colorado municipality to explore building its own broadband network with an eye on affordable access. The town is part of a trend that’s only accelerated since the state eliminated industry-backed state level protections restricting community-owned broadband networks.
Just south of Breckenridge in the central part of the state, Blue River is nestled in one of the more rural parts of Summit County. Comcast (Xfinity) enjoys a broadband monopoly, resulting in spotty access, slow speeds, and high prices. Locals also routinely complain that cell phone service remains spotty in much of the mountainous area.
In response, town leaders recently hired the consulting firm, NEO Connect, to explore the possibility of building a town-wide fiber network. According to a feasibility study presented to the Blue River Board of Trustees by Mayor Toby Babich, the construction of a fiber network serving every town resident will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million.
While that “may seem out of reach,” Babich recently told the board, “we believe with the right funding and partnership we can move forward with this project.”
The estimates for network construction range somewhere between $7 million to $24 million, depending on how much underground trenching work is required.
Loveland’s municipal broadband utility Pulse is a heartbeat away from expanding into a small neighboring Colorado town eager to offer its residents the same attractive, high-quality Internet access that can be found in Larimer County’s biggest cities.
Officials in Loveland and Timnath, Colorado (pop. 7,800) recently announced the ratification of an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) that greenlight’s a plan to bring ubiquitous, affordable high-speed Internet access to yet another community in the Centennial State, as an increasing number of Colorado cities and towns embrace municipal broadband after years of frustration with the inadequate, high-priced service from the region’s monopoly incumbents.
"The selection of Pulse as our broadband service provider reflects a thorough process of assessment and consideration,” Timnath Town Planner Brian Williamson said in a press statement after the agreement was approved. “We are excited to work together, leveraging their expertise to ensure our residents have access to reliable, high-speed Internet that will contribute to the growth and prosperity of Timnath."
Keeping Up With The Loveland’s
This week Williamson spoke to ILSR about the project and why a town-wide fiber network is such valuable and vital infrastructure.
“Timnath is an interesting place. We are predominantly a residential community and we are growing quickly,” he said, adding that in a post-pandemic world of distance learning, remote work, and telehealth, an important part of the mix when people decide where to live and work is whether that community has reliable and affordable high-speed Internet access.
Colorado state leaders have voted to eliminate long-criticized state barriers to municipal broadband networks. Community broadband advocates hope it will be a beacon for other states eager to bring more reliable and affordable high-speed Internet service to a market long dominated by monopoly providers.
The Colorado decision, made after years of citizen backlash to the counterproductive restrictions, is the latest inflection point in a retreat away from monopoly-backed state laws stifling creative efforts to bridge the digital divide.
On May 1, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 23-183. The new law formally eliminates an older 2005 law backed by regional telecom monopolies, which imposed cumbersome and onerous restrictions on Colorado towns and cities looking to build better, more affordable community-owned and operated broadband networks.
“SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the Governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027,” Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter said of the decision. “Each local government is in a unique position or different phase of connecting residents to high-speed internet, and this bill allows them to establish broadband plans that meet the needs of their communities.”
Colorado state leaders say the repeal puts them in a prime position to capitalize on numerous digital equity programs designed to address Colorado’s digital divide, as well as the more than $42 billion in broadband subsidies soon to be distributed courtesy of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
“With large amounts of federal funding coming from the IIJA bill, we wanted communities to be ready to receive this money,” Colorado Representative Brianna Titone told ILSR.
Last year, Governor Polis signed an executive order formally setting a goal of connecting 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027. Colorado state leaders have previously stated they expect their share of IIJA/BEAD funding to be between $400 and $700 million; money that can now be used more broadly on a diverse array of creative broadband solutions.
Earlier this month, a new Colorado bill was introduced that, if passed, would rid the state of a law designed to protect monopoly Internet service providers (ISPs) from competition.
SB-183, titled “Local Government Provision Of Communications Services,” seeks to gut a law Big Telecom pushed state lawmakers to pass in 2005. That law, known as SB-152, prevented any of Colorado’s 272 municipalities from building and operating their own telecommunication infrastructure unless local voters first passed a referendum to “opt out.”
End of ‘the Qwest Law’?
Known also as “the Qwest law,” Qwest (now Lumen but more recently CenturyLink), with the help of Comcast, leaned on legislative allies to pass SB-152 to protect their monopoly profits. On our Community Broadband Bits podcast, Ken Fellman and Jeff Wilson, prominent telecom attorneys, recount how lobbyists for the monopoly ISPs were instrumental in pushing two false, but effective, narratives we’ve seen many times before: that SB-152 only sought to “level the playing field” so that private companies could compete with municipally run networks, and that SB-152 “protected” Coloradoans from irresponsible local governments, as if there were no such things as local elections.
But, if passed, the new proposed legislation (SB-183) – co-sponsored by a bipartisan-ish group of state legislators (10 Democrats and 2 Republicans) – would neuter SB-152 and allow local communities to decide for themselves if they wanted to pursue municipal broadband without needing special permission from the state.
More than 121 Colorado cities and towns have now opted out of SB152, a 17-year old state law backed by telecom monopolies greatly restricting the construction and funding of community broadband alternatives.
And the trend shows no sign of slowing down.
Colorado’s SB152, passed in 2005 after lobbying pressure by Comcast and Centurylink, prohibits the use of municipal or county money for broadband infrastructure without first holding a public vote.
As voters went to the polls yesterday, broadband-focused initiatives and candidates could be found up and down the ballot all across the country.
Alabama voters cast their ballots to decide on a state Constitutional amendment known as the Broadband Internet Infrastructure Funding Amendment. The measure sought to amend the state's constitution "to allow local governments to use funding provided for broadband internet infrastructure under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and award such funds to public or private entities."
That measure passed, garnering a “Yes” vote from nearly 80 percent of Alabama voters. With 73 percent of the vote counted late last night, 922,145 “Yes” votes had been tallied with 251,441 “No” votes.
Also in Alabama, Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell won her re-election bid to represent Alabama’s 7th congressional district. Sewell, whose district covers a large swath of the Alabama Black Belt, “spent much of her past two years in office bringing American Rescue Plan Act funds to rural Alabama, dedicated to healthcare, broadband access and infrastructure building,” as noted by The Montgomery Advertiser.
The Centennial State is not listed as one of 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that erect barriers to municipal broadband because nearly every community that had a vote has passed it to nullify it. But more communities had to go through that unnecessary process yesterday due to the law known as SB-152 that bans local governments in the state from establishing municipal broadband service absent a referendum.
Back in January, Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) announced it was going to begin building a city-wide, open access fiber network owned, and that Ting would be its first anchor tenant. Construction of the network is expected to begin in the third quarter of this year, with a target completion date of 2028 (originally planned for fifteen years). The network will provide multi-gigabit service to roughly 200,000 homes as well as city businesses and anchor institutions. It’s still early in the process, but projections at the moment have the utility spending $45 million to $100 million a year for the next six years to complete the project. The first phase will see 225 new fiber route miles laid.
CSU Has Long Used Fiber
For thirty years CSU has built fiber across Colorado’s second-largest city. CSU’s dramatic expansion of this existing network directly benefits the utility by reducing overall costs, improving infrastructure monitoring, and boosting overall utility network resiliency. And it all will come with no rate increases to CSU electric customers.
But the company’s decision to lease access to this fiber expansion also directly aids the local community by lowering consumer utility costs, and delivering universal, affordable, high-speed Internet access. It’s a significant boon to Colorado’s second largest city that’s now an attractive, high-tech growth market.
A month ago, President Biden visited the city of Golden, Colorado to tout his Build Back Better Agenda, which includes a bipartisan infrastructure package that invests $65 billion to expand access to high-speed Internet connectivity. But years before that, city officials had already been preparing for the possibility of building a municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network.
Although the President didn’t say it during his remarks after a tour of Golden’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the city’s desire to offer municipal Internet service is a prime example of what the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan envisioned: investing in local, publicly-owned community broadband networks.
Though this city of approximately 20,000 is served by CenturyLink and Comcast Xfinity, along with a handful of other smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs), city councilors agree that a municipal FTTH network would be a boon for business and offer more affordable and reliable options to residents.
It’s an idea that has garnered the support of voters when five years ago a referendum was passed authorizing the city to opt out of the Colorado state law (SB 152) that bars local governments in the Centennial State from establishing municipal Internet service. Golden is one of over 150 communities in the state to have opted out of SB 152 since the law was passed 15 years ago; most notably Loveland, Fort Collins, and Estes Park, all of whom are building out municipal fiber networks in the Front Range region.
The Centennial State has been a leader over the last fifteen years in showcasing how communities can take back local authority from restrictive state laws which place barriers in front of municipal broadband efforts. More than 150 communities in the state have done so since the 2005 law went into effect, and cities like Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins continue to show the value of investing in local broadband infrastructure and bringing the service residents, businesses, and community anchor institutions need.
Cortez, Colorado (pop. 8,700) is the latest municipality to join the club. In a referendum last month, residents raised their hands to opt out of SB 152, with 78 percent in favor.
Afterwards, former Mayor Karen Sheek remarked that “To move forward on finding solutions to improve Internet service for our community, we need the exemption. It is the next natural step." Cortez General Services Director Rick Smith said that broadband service remains weak outside the "downtown corridor, in schools, libraries and government offices."
The city already operates an I-Net for public facilities, businesses, and anchor institutions (listen to Christopher talk with General Services Director Rick Smith on the podcast about it).
What's next for the city remains to be seen, but others in the state are forging ahead. Four other communities - Berthoud (pop. 7,200), Mead (4,600), Johnstown (15,000), and Milliken (7,200) - have banded together together to perform a survey of residents as a prelude to taking next steps. Berthoud opted out of the preemption law last November (along with Denver and Englewood) while Johnstown did so in April 2020 and Mead opted out in the fall of 2019.
Cortez is the latest community in the state of Colorado to decide whether to opt out of SB 152, which has since passage in 2005 has preempted local authority and prevented communities from building publicly owned telecommunications infrastructure and offering retail service.
The community (pop. 8,500) is located in Montezuma County in the southwest part of the state, just north of Mesa Verde National Park. As first reported in The Journal at the end of January and subsequently approved unanimously by the City Council in the middle of February, a ballot measure later this spring will give city residents the option to restore the municipality’s ability to offer retail Internet service to business and households themselves.
From the ballot flyer provided to residents by the city:
A voter-approved exemption from SB 152 would restore local independence and ability to evaluate all possibilities for next generation broadband services in the City of Cortez and our communities. An exemption supports local choice and options, allowing citizens to make the best decisions based on the needs of our own individual communities, without raising taxes.
It further explains the realities of the limitations imposed by SB 152:
Without such approval, the law limits the ability of Colorado local governments to provide a wide spectrum of services, including: free Internet service in city libraries, parks and community centers; leveraging government infrastructure and partnering with private businesses to provide affordable and high-speed Internet service throughout the entire community; [and] direct provision of broadband services by municipal governments where needed.
A Chance to Build on Past Success