Need for speed: Region’s cities take varied routes toward broadband superhighway

From tech-savvy businesses and schools dealing in big chunks of data to the kid next door immersed in the world of online gaming, the public push for higher-speed Internet access is everywhere.

How cities in the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado respond to the demand, however, can be as different as PCs and Macs.

What the public wants can be boiled down to three comments submitted in a 2018 Broomfield citizen survey.

“I think the number one priority should be municipal broadband,” wrote one resident. “There aren’t many choices for internet, and with net neutrality being repealed, this should be a big priority. The entire Denver metro area thrives on the tech industry,  and bringing that to Broomfield County would mean more people wanting to live here. This would be a huge selling point to moving here and it would definitely ensure I don’t leave this county for a long time.”

Another comment targeted dissatisfaction with private Internet service providers, the reason large majorities in several area cities voted to override a state law prohibiting governments from setting up their own broadband. That resident urged Broomfield to pursue “the establishment of municipal high-speed broadband service to eliminate our reliance on ISP conglomerates that hurt our economy.”

And finally, there was the allure of the sleek model next door: “Instead of public wifi, let’s get municipal broadband like Longmont’s.”

Connexion crews install fiber in a Fort Collins neighborhood. Courtesy city of Fort Collins/John Robsoni

NextLight: The gold standard

“If you are choosing where to live in the U.S. based entirely on Internet speed, consider buying or renting in Longmont,” wrote PC Magazine last June when it named Longmont Power and Communications’ municipal NextLight the fastest ISP in the nation.

Originally projected to have a market penetration rate of about 37 percent after the first five years, NextLight’s current “take rate” including homes and businesses stands at 55 percent,” said Susan Wisecup, acting general manager. Its quick acceptance was helped by a deal in which “charter” members would be guaranteed the same fixed monthly rate for as long as they had the service.

NextLight promised that its 1-gigabit upload and download speeds also would be an economic driver to lure businesses and industries to the city. Although the Longmont Economic Development Partnership has yet to fully quantify that effect, Wisecup said “we do have some figures on how much the ‘big build’ (the 2014 to 2017 citywide construction itself) added to the community.”

Wisecup said the Longmont EDP estimated that the construction generated $25.9 million in earnings for the community, added 424 jobs and boosted local, state and federal tax revenues by more than $600,000.

“These results were generated by the citywide construction itself, and do not include the additional economic benefits that continue to be derived from the completed network,” she said. “The information we have is more anecdotal, with customers sharing in their satisfaction surveys and reviews that they specifically chose Longmont to live in because of NextLight.

“Many of these customers work from home, have home offices and depend on a fast Internet connection to successfully do their job,” Wisecup said. “We have had a number of companies who have told us they stayed in Longmont because of NextLight; additionally, new businesses have consistently remarked that the availability, high quality and low price of NextLight and our electric utility have been primary factors in them choosing Longmont.”

In the face of heavy spending by entities backed by the cable industry, Longmont lost at the polls in its initial attempt to opt out of state Senate Bill 152 but succeeded on its second try in 2011. With the help of $45.4 million in bonding, the service is available citywide. A group called the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, funded by the oil-rich Koch Brothers’ political network, has waged a campaign to convince voters and lawmakers that municipal broadband systems are money losers, but NextLight spokesman Scott Rochat has said it’s now profitable and on track to repay the bond by its 2029 due date or earlier.

This spring, NextLight won a Cornerstone Award at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas. The award honors the most notable fiber-to-the-home deployments in the United States and abroad.

“Longmont’s NextLight service is not just community-owned, but community-focused,” the judges said in their decision. “This utility is dedicated to making life better for Longmont’s residents and enabling businesses to start up, grow, and stay in the city.”

As part of that focus, NextLight announced in January that it had partnered with the Longmont Community Foundation and Longmont Children, Youth and Families to assist in bridging the digital divide in the city by providing free 25-megabit connections to some families with children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch assistance programs in St. Vrain Valley schools.

NextLight also was named last year as one of the factors that made Longmont an All-America City, an award presented by the National Civic League, and in 2017, the fiber-optic network was named Community Broadband Project of the Year by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers, which also had recognized Longmont Power and Communications in 2013 for its broadband business plan.

Fort Collins crews work in Connexion Huts. Courtesy city of Fort Collins/John Robsoni

Fort Collins: Gearing up

Existing ISPs fought hard against ballot issues that would opt cities out of state Senate Bill 152’s bans on municipal-owned broadband systems. Comcast alone pumped nearly $1 million into the issue that appeared on ballots in Fort Collins in 2015. And yet 83 percent of voters there gave the city the green light, and today crews are digging into the job of making Fort Collins Connexion a reality.

“The evidence was in with Longmont’s NextLight,” said Erin Shanley, the city’s broadband marketing manager, who noted that Connexion’s first connections are expected to be active in August. “We should have full rollout in 36 to 48 months,” she said, “but we’re trying to expedite that.”

When the city went back to voters in 2017 asking for up to $150 million in bond financing, a group backed by private ISPs spent more than $900,000 to try to defeat the measure. According to filings, primary opponent Priorities First Fort Collins received most of its funding from the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, which included national telecom giants that stood to lose tens of millions in revenue if they had to compete with a municipal system.

The citizens group supporting the bonds could muster just $15,000 for its campaign — but was rewarded with 57 percent voter approval at the polls.With that mandate from voters, Fort Collins dove in with both feet, hiring Colman Keane — the man who turned Chattanooga, Tenn., into the world’s first “gig city” — as its broadband venture’s executive director last summer.

“His background and knowledge about this process, the ins and outs, are amazing,” Shanley said.

For the system to meet its financial obligations, Keane has said it needs about a 28 percent take rate.

“I think, to start, it’ll be a loss leader that generates business,” Shanley said, but I would consider success being over 50 percent of market share. Our goal is that this will make Fort Collins an attractive place for businesses looking for new locations or relocating. An all-gig fiber network will be incredibly attractive.”

Officials still are finalizing Connexion’s product catalog and pricing, Shanley said, “and we’re not rolling out crazy promotions. We’ll have prices set, and whether we do an introductory rate like Longmont is still being discussed. But we’re extremely excited about where we’re going to be landing.”

She said she already has noticed a response from private carriers such as Comcast and CenturyLink. “They’ve been trying to get their pricing more competitive, and also working to lock people into contracts.”

NextLight service tech Zach Hall works in a connected neighborhood. Courtesy NextLight/Layra Nicli

Like NextLight, Fort Collins Connexion also plans to offer telephone and video services, whether it’s television delivered over a set-top box or via an app that would be compatible with iPhones, Androids, smart TVs or services such as Roku.

The city also is deploying a new utility billing solution capable of handling both existing utilities and the new broadband services. It signed an agreement with San Francisco-based Open International to implement its Open Smartflex system to handle billing and customer care. The company has worked with utility customers for 30 years in 18 countries.

Full speed ahead in Larimer

Two other Larimer County municipalities also are launching municipal broadband systems — one propelled by a resounding vote and another that felt it couldn’t wait for that.

Given the final green light by changes to Estes Park’s municipal code approved unanimously by town trustees March 12, “crews are already out there working on a couple of neighborhoods, and we hope to have buildout by 2024,” said Kate Rusch, spokesperson for the tourist town at the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Buoyed by a ballot issue to opt out of the state law that garnered 92 percent of the vote in 2015, Estes Park intends for the system to be self-funding, Rusch said. “We went for bonds to pay for construction, but it will be run like a business.”

Taking a page from Longmont, Estes Park will offer a “Trailblazer” discount for initial signups, with a fixed rate that will stay in place for the life of the account.

The town’s municipal broadband system will be “part of our Power and Communications division — formerly called Light and Power. We just changed that” in May, Rusch said.

“There are no services up here that will be to a similar level to what we’re offering,” she said.

With a municipal utility and some existing fiber infrastructure already in place, the job will be made easier, but the town also will issue around $28 million in revenue bonds to cover the cost of deploying a Fiber-to-the-Home system.

When town trustees opened their March meeting for public comment, no one spoke in opposition.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the community,” Rusch said. “It’s really neat.”

The mood was a bit different in Loveland, where City Council members culminated a long and arduous process by determining that rising construction costs made further delays inadvisable. The council in January voted to approve the bonding itself despite Mayor Jacki Marsh’s objections that the process should have been decided at the polls.

The 6-1 council vote paved the way for a three-year process to build the citywide fiber broadband network that can deliver up to 1-gigabit speeds for residents and businesses.

Brieana Redd-Harmel, who has directed the project since its start in 2016, was selected in December to serve as division manager of the city’s new High-Speed Fiber Enterprise.

Boulder: A bit different

Boulder has fought a protracted battle to take over the city’s electric system that was built and run by Xcel Energy, but isn’t quite pursuing municipalization for high-speed broadband.

“We’re taking a couple-step process,” said Boulder Chamber president John Tayer. “We’re laying the backbone infrastructure for a more centralized main trunk, key corridors for the fiber network. Then we’ll look to offer that to private providers. The idea is let’s put the backbone in, and that creates options for how to connect to that for homes and businesses.

“Private providers offer broadband connections now,” he said. “They will continue to offer those services, but we can help them make it better.”

Longmont, he explained, “has a municipal utility already, and that helps facilitate that broadband connection. Boulder does not have that, and as a consequence we’re having to build out the system from scratch. But there’s a great deal of fiber in the ground already from our institutional facilities — our labs, the University of Colorado and the school district. So we’re making sure we understand those assets that are already available.”

The chamber in 2014 championed a successful ballot measure authorizing the city to pursue high-speed Internet service, but studies and surveys followed. The city’s goal is to have the new backbone complete and ready for service prior to or by the start of 2022.

“I could argue that fiber to home might not be the only option,” Tayer wrote in January, “but the point is, we can’t keep chasing the future in our pursuit of universal access to high-speed Internet service. … The future is now.”

Works in progress

The city and county of Broomfield submitted a fiber master plan to its council in February 2018, highlighting an approach that could maximize the benefits of improvements to its fiber infrastructure that might be used to pursue connectivity at some point in the future.

Erie voters joined those elsewhere, with 85.65 percent in support of opting out of SB-152, and Firestone, which had commissioned a feasibility study four years ago, saw voters in 2018 approve the opt-out by a tally of 1,568 to 347.

In Lafayette, voters in 2016 authorized the city to study high-speed Internet services, but in 2018, Comcast launched an Advanced Fiber Network project that would bring fiber-optic infrastructure deeper into the city. In Louisville, voters also authorized the city to study options, and $50,000 for that purpose was included in its 2018 budget.

Waiting in Weld

A recent report by cordcutting.com found that just 78 percent of Greeley residents had access to broadband services, and that Weld County fared only slightly better at 81 percent adoption.

Steered by Brian Sullivan, Greeley’s interim information-technology, the city is exploring the idea of running its own municipal broadband system but also is working with Comcast and CenturyLink to help them increase availability and speed, and mulling the idea of trying to lure another private provider to the city as well.

Glenwood Springs-based NEO Connect was selected to provide a feasibility study and broadband plan for a joint-city project for the city of Greeley and the town of Windsor.

“We already do Dig 1, where when we put shovels in the ground, you lay a path for fiber so it’s there for the future,” said Corinne Millington, the town’s IT manager. However, she said, broadband isn’t a top priority.

“We know we need to go out and seek public input on what their thoughts are. I’m not sure we’ll get to that this year or next year.”

The town has not voted to opt out of SB-152, she said. “It’s something we’ve discussed, but we’re really more concerned about cyber security protecting from ransomware. How are we going to protect our public information?

“The top concern of our citizens is safety; it’s not broadband,” she said, “so I’m going to focus on what the public concern is.”

From tech-savvy businesses and schools dealing in big chunks of data to the kid next door immersed in the world of online gaming, the public push for higher-speed Internet access is everywhere.

How cities in the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado respond to the demand, however, can be as different as PCs and Macs.

What the public wants can be boiled down to three comments submitted in a 2018 Broomfield citizen survey.

“I think the number one priority should be municipal broadband,” wrote one resident. “There aren’t many choices for internet, and with net neutrality being repealed, this should be a big priority. The entire Denver metro area thrives on the tech industry,  and bringing that to Broomfield County would mean more people wanting to live here. This would be a huge selling point to moving here and it would definitely ensure I don’t leave this county for a long time.”

Another comment targeted dissatisfaction with private Internet service providers, the reason large majorities in several area cities voted to override a state law prohibiting governments from setting up their own broadband. That resident urged Broomfield to pursue “the establishment of municipal high-speed broadband service to eliminate our reliance on ISP conglomerates that hurt our economy.”

And finally, there was the allure of the sleek model next door: “Instead of public wifi, let’s get municipal broadband like Longmont’s.”

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