Boulder eyes authorizing municipal high-speed Internet program

BOULDER – Boulder’s city council on Tuesday night will consider on first reading a pair of ordinances that could pave the way for the city to build out a city-wide fiber-optic network and provide telecommunications services for residents and businesses. 
The ordinances are similar to the one Longmont passed in 2011, which has led to that city preparing to begin buildout of its own broadband network to all residents later this year. 
Boulder city staff notes that the proposed ballot measures are not offered with any specific initiative to provide service in mind at this time. Passage of such would simply give the city that option and open the door to further analysis.
In 2005, Colorado lawmakers passed legislation that prohibits municipalities from providing telecom services like high-speed Internet and cable television without voter approval. 
“We just think that not having this legislative monkey on our backs would really foster the ability to have discussions for the future even though we don’t have any concrete plans at this point,´ said Don Ingle, information technology director for the city. 
One of Boulder’s proposed ballot measures would give the city the right to provide such services either directly, or indirectly through a third-party in a public-private partnership. The other measure would allow the city to provide the services only in conjunction with a third party. 
Boulder has been building out conduit and other fiber infrastructure since the mid-1990s, and already has a municipal fiber network joining more than 50 city facilities to high-speed internet. Much of the city’s 100-mile fiber network already in place is jointly owned by the University of Colorado and the federal labs located here. It was built out over time as Boulder was able to work with third parties like Level 3 Communications as they used city rights of way to build their own networks. 
Ingle said he didn’t have estimates for how long it would take to build out a network, what the cost would be, or how much service would cost residents and businesses.  
“If the ballot issue passes, we’re talking about doing more of an analysis,” Ingle said. Such analysis would be in vain, he said, without the authority to provide service. 
Since the 2005 legislation, three Colorado cities have passed similar ballot measures. Both Longmont (2011) and Montrose (2014) voters gave their cities the right to directly provide services. Centennial voters in 2013 granted only the right to contract with a third party to provide those services. 
Longmont will open bids to build out its fiber-optic network next week, with hopes of construction beginning by August. The goal is for the whole city to have access by 2017 to municipal Internet service with download speeds of 1 gigabit per second for just $50 per month, adding some serious competition to the local marketplace for providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. 
Longmont first tried to pass its ballot measure in 2009 but faced stiff opposition from the incumbent broadband providers. The Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association spent about $245,000 on the campaign, and Longmont’s measure failed by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin. The same organization spent about $420,000 in opposition in 2011. But that measure passed resoundingly, 61 percent to 39 percent. 
Tom Roiniotis, director of Longmont Power & Communications, said the difference in 2011 was the level of education the city worked to provide on the benefits of what the network could mean to residents and businesses.
Longmont had built a 17-mile fiber loop around much of the city in 1997 for municipal use with the idea that it could someday be the backbone of a city-wide network. But Roiniotis said voters were skeptical in 2009 of voting to approve buildout of something tech-related that had originally been constructed more than a decade earlier. The city kind of assumed, he said, that residents would know the potential of a fiber-optic network. 
“We learned a lot of lessons from that,” Roiniotis said. “You just can’t take for granted what people may or may not know when it comes to technology. We really had to educate the folks specifically what the election was about.” 
Last fall, Longmont voters approved a second measure that allows the city to issue up to $45.3 million in bonds to ensure complete buildout of the network in three years versus doing it incrementally over the next few decades. The city ended up issuing $40.3 million in bonds earlier this year.
Longmont will provide broadband Internet service but not cable television. Boulder’s ballot language gives the city the right to provide both if it chooses. 
Boulder’s city council authorized staff at an April study session to draft the language for its own ballot measures. The council has the option Tuesday of moving both ordinances forward to a second reading and public hearing, rejecting both, or moving just one forward. 
If city council does place one of the measures on the November ballot, Ingle said he’s unsure of what opposition it might face. He said Centennial and Montrose faced little compared to Longmont. 
“But clearly it would not surprise us in light of what happened in Longmont,” Ingle said. 

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