Another Gigabit City Takes Shape in Colorado

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But some local officials remain apprehensive about how to proceed on a municipal solution.

City council members in Loveland, Colorado, voted Tuesday to plow ahead on the path toward municipal broadband service, agreeing after hours of debate to spend $2.5 million to find the best options. The council is working to decide between a network run as a public utility or one run through a public-private partnership.

Loveland joins several Front Range cities north of Denver that are working at various stages toward municipal alternatives to plodding privately-run internet service. Residents of university towns Boulder and Fort Collins have voted to similarly pursue public internet service options and Longmont, a city just south of Loveland, already runs its own celebrated fiber-optic broadband utility.

That city’s NextLight gigabit service is run in tandem with its electric power utility. NextLight has been rated among the fastest ISPs in the nation. Residents and businesses in Longmont freely exercise bragging rights, stoking envy among state entrepreneurs, home-office workers, and among Colorado residents—urban and rural—who now experience even frustratingly slow internet as crucial to their professional and social lives, fundamental to public safety and political participation and essential for accessing health care and government services.                  

In Loveland, a city with approximately 76,000 residents, council members on Tuesday openly struggled with the topic. Some felt their grasp of communication technology and of the unfolding character of digital life left them unprepared to shape a long-term communication infrastructure project bearing a price tag as high as $100 million. Some wanted to put the question before the residents in a special election.

"Whether this is a utility or not, on the level of water and power, I disagree... [M]y health doesn't rely on access to the internet or streaming a movie,” said councilor Jeremy Jersvig, according to tweets by Loveland Reporter-Herald writer Julia Rentsch. “[A]ll I see here is that we are bypassing the public if we do this . . . We're taking the vote that could make or break our city. It's too big for nine people."

Mayor Jacki Marsh said she initially was taken aback by the amounts of money being discussed. “[But] I know we have to fix this. The question is: ‘How do we fix it?’” She pointed out that the telecommunication companies consulted on the project conceded it would be years before the companies could provide high-end broadband coverage throughout the city.

"That's 76,000 people who would be waiting a very long time to get high-speed internet,” she said.

Glen Akins, a technology designer in Fort Collins and a municipal broadband champion, offered encouragement, according to Rentsch’s dispatches. He underlined the fact that the small number of dominant telecommunications companies working the area routinely racked up large numbers of customer complaints.

"The marketplace for internet access in our region is broken... Since that market is broken, I hope [the council will] have the flexibility to do something about it regardless of their ideological beliefs."

Colman Keane, director of fiber optic technology at the Electric Power Board—Chattanooga, Tennessee’s electric power and telecommunications utility—also tried to reassure the council members in Loveland.

He said internet companies use “fear tactics” to scare cities away from taking the plunge and that Comcast ultimately sued Chattanooga. He played down the challenges presented by evolving technologies. He said any plan Loveland would develop simply would build rolling technology upgrades into the business plan.  

Brieana Reed-Harmel, senior engineer with Loveland’s power utility, pointed out that, in any case, the technology moving most quickly lies on the receiving end—phone and computer technology. She told the council that conduit infrastructure doesn’t change at the same kind of pace.  

She also added that the “take rate” of residents in Longmont—the number of residents who signed up for the city’s NextLight internet service and therefore help pay for it—came in higher than predicted and that, once a network is up and running, sign-up percentages grow even higher.    

Loveland City Manager Steve Adams reminded the council that, so far, no U.S. city that has committed itself to providing broadband services has failed in the task.

Councilor Richard Ball pushed the council to take action.

“We've had 16 separate deliberative meetings,” he said. “Let's quit the stalling . . . Let's give our staff all the tools they need."

Councilor John Fogle recalled the expensive and ugly advertising campaign waged against the municipal broadband vote in Fort Collins. He said calling a special election would only give the deep-pocketed telecommunications companies an advantage.  

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.

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