Crews from Longmont Power and Communications conduct directional drilling as part of building the city’s fiber-optic network. They’re also starting in the south central part of the city in a phased installation of Longmont’s NextLight broadband service. Courtesy Longmont Power and Communications

Municipal broadband spreading at speed of light

As proud as Longmont’s 103-year-old municipal utility is of the community high-speed broadband system it began installing in November, its public-relations arm can’t compete with some of the effusive comments its new customers wrote on its Facebook page:

“It’s so fast, my computer can’t write to the hard drive fast enough,” wrote one, while another gushed that “It’s so fast, it ripped my face off!”

President Obama signaled a faceoff with telecommunications companies in November when he outlined a plan to spur broadband competition while safeguarding “net neutrality” – helping ensure that no one company can act as a gatekeeper to digital content and the speed at which it’s delivered. Since then, many communities across the country have begun considering whether and how to meet the challenge.

In tech-savvy Colorado, however, a few cities and towns are way ahead of the White House. Municipalities already are in various stages of setting up high-speed broadband offerings, either city-run or as public-private partnerships.

In his State of the Union address, Obama cited cities such as Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has spurred economic development by offering Internet speeds nearly 100 times faster than the national average and at affordable rates. In a report titled “Community-Based Broadband Solutions: The Benefits of Competition and Choice for Community Development and High-Speed Internet Access,” the White House said it wants to end laws in 19 states – including

Colorado – that it claims “harm broadband service competition.”

Longmont leads the way

A Colorado law passed in 2005 requires municipalities to hold a referendum before providing cable, telecommunications or broadband service unless the community had been previously unserved.

Longmont held such a referendum in 2009, but telecommunications companies spent nearly $200,000 in a successful bid to defeat it. When the question returned to the ballot in 2011, the telecom companies spent twice as much in their campaign against it – but that time, voters said “yes.” Then in 2013, they approved a $45.3 million bond issue to build the NextLight network, which promises Internet data downloads at nearly 1 gigabit per second – fast enough to nab a full-length movie in about 30 seconds. In comparison, most Longmont homes that get their Internet through a cable or telephone company top out at about one-fifth that speed.

Crews are working neighborhood by neighborhood to install the service, which Tom Roiniotis, director of Longmont Power and Communications, said is funded solely through the revenue it generates. The original plan was to have Longmont wired by 2017, but Scott Rochat, spokesman for the utility, said demand has been so heavy that the city may contract with other firms to double the number of installers and speed the process.

Private Internet service providers “look to the larger markets first and the second-tier cities afterwards” when upgrading service, Rochat said, adding that “Longmont didn’t want to wait that long.”

Longmont is offering “charter members” of NextLight – those who sign up within three months of the service reaching their home – a $49.95-per-month forever rate for 1 gigabit of upload and download speeds, They’ll be able to carry that rate with them if they move to a new address in Longmont, and transfer the rate to someone purchasing their home.

Estes Park gets ready

Meanwhile, 92 percent of Estes Park residents voted on Feb. 3 to allow the mountain town to make its fiber optic network available for everyone. Unlike in the Longmont election, no significant opposition was mounted from telecom companies, said city spokeswoman Kate Rusch. “Our local providers have been involved and knew they’d be a part of it,” she said.

The Estes Park Economic Development Corp.’s Competitive Broadband Committee, which requested the ballot initiative, wasted no time in setting up a series of meetings for local residents and businesses to help shape the system; the first ones were scheduled for the first two days after the election. The work of consultant NEO Fiber, which is hosting the meetings, is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Elsewhere in Colorado

Other Colorado cities also are beginning to hop aboard the bandwagon.

Last November, Boulder voters overwhelmingly approved Issue 2C, giving the city broadband authority. The city has about 100 miles of fiber-optic network at its disposal, but city leaders have said they likely would find a private partner instead of trying to run a municipal system themselves.

On that same day, similar issues also passed by large margins in the towns of Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Wray and Yuma, and in Rio Blanco and Yuma counties, Grand Junction voters will decide on community broadband there in April.

Fort Collins City Manager Darin Atteberry kicked off the Choice City’s study of municipal broadband last year, and Jessica Ping-Small, revenue and projects manager, was handed the reins Feb. 11. She said she and chief financial officer Mike Beckstead would present a plan for a $300,000, six-month community-engagement effort to the City Council at its March 24 work session.

“It’s a two-pronged effort,” Ping-Small said. “We’ll educate the community about what it means and then find out what’s the appetite for it. A lot of that dialogue hasn’t happened yet.”

Loveland city leaders began discussing the possibility of bringing municipal high-speed Internet to the Sweetheart City at their Jan. 24 retreat.

FCC set to act

“Today’s Internet is the product of broadband connectivity,” noted Federal Communications Commission chief Tom Wheeler during a Feb. 9 speech in Boulder, but he added that 17 percent of U.S. households – disproportionately in rural and tribal areas – don’t have access to what’s now defined as fast online speeds: 25 megabits per second for downloads and three mb/s for uploads. And for those households who do have high-speed connections, he said, “75 percent can only choose from one carrier.”

“There’s a lack of meaningful competition,” Wheeler said. “Where there is no choice, the market can’t work.”

Often, Wheeler said, connectivity issues aren’t as much about speed as about bandwidth sucked dry by simultaneous connections. “A typical American family of four has seven broadband-connected devices,” he said. “The FCC should establish a standard that makes sure innovation isn’t held back by network capacity.”

The five-person FCC scheduled a Feb. 26 vote on Wheeler’s White House-backed “net neutrality” proposal to apply  “a modernized version” of Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 to broadband providers, essentially classifying Internet service providers as public utilities, an option that cable companies and other providers have vigorously opposed. Among other things, the classification would prohibit ISPs from imposing surcharges for faster service while leaving less-wealthy customers with slower speeds. “It would ban paid prioritization, and apply equally to wired and wireless services,” he said.

Opponents of the FCC’s plan cite several potential pitfalls and express fears that the government could dictate pricing that service providers charge consumers and content providers, thus stifling competition and innovation. In his speech in Boulder, Wheeler disputed that contention.

“If an industry action hurts consumers, competition or innovation,” he said, “the FCC will have the authority to throw a flag.”

As for classifying broadband as a utility, Rochat said that change would have little effect on Longmont’s broadband effort. “For us,” he said, “it’s been a utility from the very beginning.”

Dallas Heltzell can be reached at 970-232-3149, 303-630-1962 or dheltzell@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DallasHeltzell.

Clarification

Longmont Power and Communications spokesman Scott Rochat clarified some of his comments in “Municipal broadband spreading at the speed of light,” a story in the Feb. 20-March 5 edition of BizWest.

To meet demand for the city’s new NextLight high-speed broadband service, he said, the city already has doubled the number of installers through its own hiring, and potential contracts with an outside firm would be in addition to that and would increase the total number of installers still further. Even though Longmont has considered broadband a utility from the beginning, Rochat said, “it’s too early to say what reclassifying broadband under Title II (of the 1934 Communications Act) would mean for us or what specific effects it would have.” Rochat said charter subscribers to NextLight always will get the best rate for that speed that the city offers, even though their initial $49.95 rate may change “as the years go by.”

 

As proud as Longmont’s 103-year-old municipal utility is of the community high-speed broadband system it began installing in November, its public-relations arm can’t compete with some of the effusive comments its new customers wrote on its Facebook page:

“It’s so fast, my computer can’t write to the hard drive fast enough,” wrote one, while another gushed that “It’s so fast, it ripped my face off!”

President Obama signaled a faceoff with telecommunications companies in November when he outlined a plan to spur broadband competition while safeguarding “net neutrality” – helping ensure that no one company can act as a gatekeeper to digital content and the speed at which it’s delivered. Since then, many communities across the country have begun considering whether and how to meet the challenge.

In tech-savvy Colorado, however, a few cities and towns are way ahead of the White House. Municipalities already are in various stages of setting up high-speed broadband offerings, either city-run or as public-private partnerships.

In his State of the Union address, Obama cited cities such as Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has spurred economic development by offering Internet speeds nearly 100 times faster than the national average and at affordable rates. In a report titled “Community-Based Broadband Solutions: The Benefits of Competition and Choice for Community Development and High-Speed Internet Access,” the White House said it wants to end laws in 19 states – including

Colorado – that it claims “harm broadband service competition.”

Longmont leads the way

A Colorado law passed in 2005 requires municipalities to hold a referendum before providing…