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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
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.
After tentative plans to work with a private sector partner fell through, Fort Collins is still moving forward. The city wants the option to provide residents and businesses with gigabit connectivity as a municipal service, necessitating a ballot initiative in November to change the city charter. The ballot initiative would allow the Light and Power Utility to provide Internet services and may also ask voters to consent to use municipal bonds to fund the Internet network infrastructure project.
The city estimates the project will cost between $125 million and $140 million and will cover the entire city and its “growth management area,” which is land that is expected to be annexed in the future.
A Long And Winding Road
In 2015, voters in Fort Collins reclaimed local authority by opting out of SB 152, which discourages cities from investing in Internet infrastructure in order to offer services themselves or with private sector partners. The pro-local sentiment was so popular that 83 percent of voters supported opting out.
From there, the city pursued a partnership with Axia. However, the Canadian company pulled out of discussions with Fort Collins and a similar deal with Bloomington, Indiana. Axia’s parent company, Partners Group, was reportedly hesitant to enter the U.S. market and compete with large, incumbent providers Comcast and CenturyLink. Axia Networks USA was operating MassBroadband 123 in Massachussetts and filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, leaving the state searching for another company to manage the statewide fiber-optic network.
The city is still open to partnering with a private sector partner, but is leaning toward providing services through their existing Light and Power Utility. We've seen other deals between municipalities fall apart when they seemed like sure things, which indicates that municipalities must always take care when establishing a relationship with a potential partner.
This spring, two more communities in Colorado reclaimed the authority to build municipal networks. Colorado Springs and Central City voted to opt out of SB 152, a state law that removed local telecommunications authority in 2005.
Voters overwhelmingly chose to restore local authority to make decisions for themselves. Now the cities can discuss if a community network is right for them.
The Denver Business Journal covered the outcome of these April votes - noting the strong showing in rural Central City. The referendum to “opt out” of SB 152 easily passed in the small community; of the 182 ballots, 162 folks voted yes for local control [pdf]. That means 89 percent of the voters were in favor of the measure.
In the much larger, urban community of Colorado Springs, the Colorado Springs Independent described a much tigher vote: 61 percent to 39 percent in favor of local authority. That’s about 50,000 yes votes to 32,000 no votes. Voters also decided another related ballot initiative concerning the sale of city infrastructure. Assets related to city utilities, such as water, electricity or telecom, now cannot be sold without the approval of a supermajority of 60 percent of votes cast in a referendum.
Nearly 100 Communities Say YES
These two communities join the nearly 100 communities that have already restored local authority. Last November, 26 other communities also voted to opt out of the law. More communities may join this growing movement this fall.
A Colorado Senate committee will soon hear SB 42, a bill to repeal the requirement that local communities hold a referendum to reclaim local telecommunications authority. SB 42 is on the calendar in the Senate Business, Labor, and Technology Committee for Monday, February 13th.
Supporting This One
In preparation for the hearing, a grass roots effort to pass the bill has taken shape. In January, the Colorado Municipal League and Colorado Counties, Inc., prepared a fact sheet and talking points and asked their members to disseminate the information. They also sent out information on how interested parties can testify remotely if they can’t get to Denver.
The Economic Development Council of Colorado (EDCC) drafted a letter to the Chair and members of the committee. The letter pointed out that publicly owned networks can fill in the gaps left by national providers that don't bring service to every business and residence in the state. The Council also described how SB 152, the 2005 bill that put the referendum requirement in place, limits the rights of local communities and increases prices in Colorado.
The EDCC’s letter also pointed out the importance of high-quality connectivity to a 21st century economy and how local communities will lose people and businesses when it isn’t available. The EDCC encouraged the members of the committee to pass the bill to repeal the cumbersome and onerous referendum requirement:
As a part of the EDCC legislative platform, we believe that it is our role to help ensure access to utilities and broadband for predictable and reliable services to businesses in rural and urban areas. SB17-042 would be a significant and important piece of legislation that will help Colorado achieves that imperative economic development goal.
Give 'Em A Call, Send 'Em An Email
The Colorado Senate Business, Labor, & Technology Committee will soon consider the proposed repeal of the state’s restriction on municipal networks. Under current state law, known as SB 152, local governments are not permitted to pursue a municipal network without first holding a referendum.
The Senate Business, Labor, & Technology committee will hold a hearing on the bill on February 13, 2017 at 2 p.m. The full text of the proposed repeal can be found on the Colorado General Assembly’s website.
Accepting Remote Testimony
Folks around Colorado can make their opinion heard without having to trek to the capitol. The committee will accept remote testimony on the issue. Those who wish to speak must register online in advance and choose from specific locations that have reliable connectivity. All of the remote testimony locations are colleges: Adams State, Mesa State, Fort Lewis College, Otero Junior College, and Trinidad State.
Save Money, Restore Local Control
Senators Kerry Donovan and Lucia Guzman proposed SB 42 to repeal the onerous requirements of SB 152 and to restore local control to the city and county governments. Several communities that Senator Donovan represents have already held expensive referenda on the issue, and all have reclaimed local authority.
At this point, more than a third of all counties in the state have “opted out” of SB 152. To learn more about the state restriction and how almost one hundred communities have restored local authority, listen to the the Building Local Power podcast Episode 5.
As legislators in Virginia and Missouri consider bills attacking municipal networks, two Colorado legislators have introduced a bill to repeal its restrictive state law.
Take It Away
Democratic Senators Kerry Donovan and Lucia Guzman’s bill, SB 42, calls for “the repeal of existing restrictions on the ability of a local government to provide certain electronic communications services.” The bill is now in the Senate Business, Labor, and Technology Committee.
The bill would eliminate the need for local communities to hold expensive referendums to ask voters to opt out of SB 152, a bill passed in 2005 and lobbied heavily by national providers. When SB 152 passed, it effectively stole local authority from local communities who wanted to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to invest in local Internet infrastructure. By opting out, communities reclaim local telecommunications authority.
Donovan represents several counties that have already opted out of SB 152, such as Pitkin, Gunnison and Eagle, in addition to several others that are still under the control of the law. Guzman is the Senate Minority Leader and represents Denver County, which has not yet addressed the opt out question. Together they represent bother urban and rural regions.
Voters Want Out
Residents and businesses in Rangely and Meeker are starting to feel the speed of the Rio Blanco County Broadband Project. The network is now offering fiber connectivity to the northwest Colorado towns.
Options At Last
The network brings choice and speed to Rio Blanco County, reports the Herald Times:
In just three years, Meeker and Rangely have gone from having a single choice for limited bandwidth internet to multiple local companies offering some of the biggest bandwidth packages available in the nation.
Subscribers have the option to choose between two providers which are offering services via the open access infrastructure. Local Access Internet (LAI) and Cimarron Telecommunications are both local providers that began offering wireless Internet access to subscribers before the project commenced. LAI also offers technical troubleshooting for PCS, laptops and cell phones.
Both companies offer symmetrical Gigabit Internet access (1,000 Megabits per second download and upload) for $70 per month. They match each others’ prices on two lower tiers also: $40 per month for 25 Mbps download / 5 Mbps upload and $55 per month for 100 Mbps download and 25 Mbps upload. Cimarron and LAI still offer fixed wireless packages.
We spoke with Bob Knight at Cimarron who told us that the 100 Mbps / 25 Mbps tier was the most popular with their subscribers, who are often families that run multiple devices simultaneously. While businesses are requesting the service, residents who have had little options except expensive and unreliable satellite are clearly hungry for better Internet access.
Bob was quick to point out that he expects the network to be an enticing economic development tool in Rio Blanco County. He says the quality of life is already good there and pointed out that there is ample hiking, fishing, biking, and other outdoor recreation. With high-quality Internet access, he hopes to see more entrepreneurs and families looking for clean air and beautiful country.
How Did They Get To Here?
Summit County in central Colorado is exploring how to bring Gigabit connectivity (1,000 Megabits per second) to homes and businesses in its region.
The County recently issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to participate in a public-private partnership to bring a Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network to local businesses and residents. The County is also looking for a private partner to help deploy wireless broadband service. The deadline for submitting RFI responses is Jan. 9, 2017.
In its RFI, the County said it:
“[R]ecognizes that it may be economically challenging to deploy fiber-to-the premises infrastructure throughout the County and thus understands that early investments may focus on population centers in the County. The County’s hope, however, is that world-class networks will eventually expand to the less populous areas of the County.”
The county indicated it is seeking proposals from a potential private sector partner who would be interested in establishing a long-term relationship.
Summit County’s RFI comes a year after citizens voted in a referendum to opt out of Colorado SB 152, the state law that prevents local governments from providing service or partnering with private sector partners. More than two dozen local communities opted out of SB 152 this past fall, bringing the total to 95 Colorado communities, which have chosen to reclaim local telecommunications authority.
Summit County Overview
On November 8th, 2016, 26 Colorado cities and counties joined 69 of their fellow communities in opting out of the restrictive, anti-municipal broadband state law, SB 152. For years, we at ILSR have been covering the developments in Colorado as voters reclaim local telecommunications authority.
The media, both locally and nationally, took notice of our efforts.
Here's a roundup of stories in which national, state, and local outlets cited our work and provided information to ensure this vital issue gained coverage. Read more in our story covering the votes and in our podcast about the election.
MEDIA COVERAGE - "26 Colorado Communities Opt out of Restrictive State Broadband Law"
26 Colorado Communities Will Vote on Building Their Own Internet Networks by Jason Koebler, Motherboard Vice - November 2nd, 2016
Colorado is the only state in the country that has a ballot measure requirement for locally run networks; 22 other states have different laws that restrict local broadband efforts. With so many cities overwhelmingly voting in favor of local government-run broadband, Mitchell says that Colorado’s law hasn’t quite had the effect CenturyLink would have liked.
“If this is the worst barrier we had to deal with, I don’t think anyone would be complaining,” he said. “It’s not as bad as Nebraska or North Carolina, where cities basically can’t do anything under the circumstances of their laws.”