Lessons from the Field

State Profile: Colorado’s cities reject state restrictions and provide fast broadband

Every month, here at Utility LINE we profile the municipal and community broadband experiences in one state. In May we looked at Georgia, in June Maryland, and last month we saw the successes of county public utilities districts in Washington state. Now we turn our eyes toward the Rockies, and look at how local governments across Colorado are exempting themselves from a restrictive state law in order to provide fast, reliable broadband to their residents and businesses.

Colorado is one of the 21 states across the country with restrictive municipal broadband legislation, but it also has a blossoming movement among local governments to exempt themselves from state law and provide broadband to their communities. The story of how this has happened makes Colorado one of the more interesting states to profile.

Looking at ILSR’s Community Network Map, one might think that Colorado is behind the curve compared to Washington, Virginia, or even Utah: After all, as of 2014 only five local governments – Rio Blanco, Glenwood Springs, Longmont, Durango, and Cortez – were providing community broadband. But in reality, these five – and the dozens more to come after recent local referenda exempted many of Colorado’s local governments from state law – represent a state in which community broadband services may be about to explode.

The core broadband story in Colorado begins, of course, with 2005’s SB 152, a bill that prohibited municipalities from providing broadband services without holding a referendum, in which the municipality could not take a side. According to ILSR,

[Colorado’s] referendums are typically one-sided affairs where incumbents outspend community network advocates anywhere from 10:1 to 60:1. Local governments are typically prohibited from encouraging voters to take one side or the other. The exemption for not being served is vague, and would not apply to a community where services are only available to a select minority of residents.

The passing of SB 152 in 2005 effectively stopped nascent community networks from developing. According to The Denver Post, SB 152, which was supported by incumbent private broadband service providers, “causes delay in local decision-making and increases costs. It’s one of the reasons Google chose to bypass Colorado and invest millions in new broadband networks in neighboring states.”

The roadblocks erected by SB 152 are shown in the city of Longmont, which started exploring the possibilities for public broadband as early as 1996. From the get-go, Longmont Power & Communications sought a private partner with which to work, and would have had a privately managed network up and running had its partner, Adesta, not filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Then, in 2005, SB 152 stopped all progress in providing municipal broadband in Longmont for six years.

Most, but not all cities were affected by SB 152. Cortez is the sole exception: In 1999, Cortez, a city of just over 8,500 people, had terrible private internet service, and invested in a broadband network to connect the town’s public facilities. By 2005, Cortez was already providing fiber services to government facilities, and so was exempted from SB 152.

Since Cortez was the only city to be exempted, it immediately became a public broadband pioneer in the state. With 24 route miles in the city and an open access network, the Cortez Community Broadband Network wholesales to private providers, who then retail to consumers. With a successful decade under its belt, Cortez is planning to expand its fiber to the rest of the city, and to surrounding regions.

Despite the state law, there’s been a virtual revolution over the last few years. In 2009, Longmont attempted to exempt itself from SB 152 – following on the heels of Glenwood Springs’ successful referendum in 2008. While Longmont’s referendum failed that year, a second referendum passed in 2011.

Since then, exemptions have picked up steam: Boulder, Montrose, and Centennial followed Glenwood Springs and Longmont, and in November 2015, a tipping point was reached: referenda in 27 cities and 20 counties “all passed overwhelmingly,” according to ILSR. Residents were so fed up with private ISP unreliability and state law, that majorities in favor of exemption reached 70-90%.

Of course, exemptions do not lead directly to investments in community broadband, and it is unlikely that all of Colorado’s exempt jurisdictions will find it in their interest to invest in community broadband. But the exemption wave continues: as recently as last month, news reached our ears here at Utility LINE that Boulder county and the city of Superior are both contemplating ballot initiatives to permit public broadband in their jurisdictions – and plan to study public options. Boulder county spokesman Briggs Gamblin stated that “if more government entities in the county are able to provide high-speed internet, the more those governments can collaborate ‘on reducing the digital divide.’” Superior, which has no immediate plans for public broadband, has nevertheless set aside $20,000 for a feasibility study.

For the time being, public broadband initiatives in Colorado are few and far between, but with the ongoing exemption wave sweeping across the state, we predict extensive growth of public fiber networks over the next 5-10 years.

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