By Roxann Elliott
On election day, the city of Boulder won the right to provide high-speed internet service by a pronounced landslide. Now, the city must decide how to implement such a system.
Ballot Issue 2C gives Boulder the authority to offer broadband directly or in partnership with an existing internet service provider. It passed with 83.87 percent of the vote.
“You can’t get 85 percent of the people to agree if it’s daytime or nighttime,” says Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum.
The vote was made necessary by a state bill passed in 2005 prohibiting cities from providing broadband internet service. However, the law stipulates that residents can vote to allow their city to provide broadband.
Notably, Boulder’s ballot issue faced almost no opposition. By comparison, telecommunications companies spent over $400,000 in an effort to defeat a similar ballot issue in Longmont in 2011.
“Comcast is in the process of buying up Time Warner and trying to convince the feds that this isn’t some antitrust problem,” Appelbaum notes. “There is a theory that, while they’re in the middle of that, the last thing Comcast needs to demonstrate is how they’re trying to stifle any competition”
Moreover, Longmont’s success in passing a similar issue has put economic pressure on Boulder to compete.
“It was very obvious that the business community in Boulder was very strongly supportive of this,” says Appelbaum. “It was almost certain that it was going to win handily and of course it won in a crazy landslide.”
Now, Boulder must decide how to move forward. They likely can’t replicate the system in Longmont where a municipal electric utility already exists. Still, there’s room to learn from their neighbors up the road.
“The electric utility that I’m in charge of here back in the 90’s was looking for improved communications between the substations,” explains Tom Roiniotis, the general manager for Longmont Power and Communications. “Something today that they call a smart grid. We were looking to build a smart grid before they even coined that term.”
The city elected to install fiber-optic cables for the purpose. They recognized the potential for utilizing the infrastructure to provide consumer internet, and in 2000 found a telecom provider willing to invest in building out the fiber-optic loop. Unfortunately, the company folded and walked away from the project.
Then, SB 152 was passed in 2005. Longmont first attempted to pass a ballot issue reestablishing the city’s right to provide broadband service in 2009, but with over $200,000 spent in opposition, the ballot issue failed.
When the city tried again in 2011, many people wanted to see a business plan for the proposed broadband network. The city was more concerned with regaining the authority to provide internet service before spending money on a business plan.
“I saw what incumbent providers did to business plans during an election process in other areas of the country,” Roiniotis explains. “Once a question gets on the ballot, a municipality can’t advocate for it at all.”
After the 2011 ballot issue passed, the city contracted a feasibility study. From there, they needed residents to approve funding.
“Our city charter requires we go back to the voters to vote on a bond issue,” Roiniotis says. “Everything that we do is done in public, it’s done in an open meeting, and people get to vote.”
“You don’t’ get to vote on what Comcast does or doesn’t do.”
That’s one of the big issues at play in Boulder and other cities across the state. Telecommunication companies will invest in the infrastructure for high-speed internet, but it requires a hefty initial investment.
For this reason, they’ll invest in areas of high population density and business demand, like Denver, before smaller cities. In Boulder’s case, as in Longmont, the voters decided they don’t want to wait for private investment.
That means it’s now up to Boulder to decide how to move forward.
“Before you partner, you have to figure out what you’re looking, what are the terms of the deal,” Appelbaum points out. “Usually you can get better deals the longer term it is, but then you also ought to be protected with technology innovation, which is the big Comcast problem right now. They don’t innovate; they don’t have to innovate.”
Now that the ballot issue has passed, Boulder is responsible for its own innovation, and to some extent, they’re playing catch-up.
“Nobody’s going to put up with service that’s significantly degraded form Longmont’s at significantly higher costs,” acknowledges Appelbaum.
Right now, Longmont is offering residential customers broadband service reaching 1 gigabit per second. The data is symmetrical, meaning customers achieve the same speed uploading as they do downloading.
Comcast offers a maximum download speed of 150 megabits per second.
As impressive as the bandwidth upgrade is, the system has room to expand. St. Vrain Valley School District is contracted with the city for internet service reaching 10 gigabits per second.
“I had two nightmares about this system,” Roiniotis admitted when asked about any problems Longmont has encountered in expanding their fiber-optic network. “One was that when we made it available, nobody would call. The other one would be everybody would call. What happened that first week was almost the second.”
“Within the first week we achieved a 20 percent penetration rate with one letter advertising the service to those 500 homes,” Roiniotis says, referring to the 500 residences to which broadband access was made available. “That exceeds our business plan’s projection at the end of the second year.”
“We’re scrambling right now to add workforce because we can’t keep up right now with the connects, which is a really good problem to have.”