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Montrose Asks Voters to Take Back Authority to Establish A Telecommunications Utility

Colorado communities continue to seek to restore local authority for telecommunications. In April's election, elected officials of Montrose will ask voters to approve a measure that gives the municipality the right to establish a telecommunications utility.

Centennial, a Denver suburb, approved a ballot initiative last fall to use city fiber resources as a way to provide indirect telecommunications services. Centennial's community leaders want to create the most business friendly environment as possible to spur economic development

Montrose is taking a similar approach, although the language on this ballot does not limit the City to "indirect services." Elected officials have not mentioned the desire to provide any specific services yet, but the language of the ballot question suggests they do not want limited possibilities.

The City Council approved the following language for the April 1, 2014 ballot:

"Without increasing taxes, shall the citizens of the City of Montrose Colorado re-establish their City's right to provide all services restricted since 2005 by Title 29, article 27 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, described as "advanced services," "telecommunications services" and "cable television services," including any new and improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies, utilizing community owned infrastructure including but not limited to the existing fiber optic network, either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners, to potential subscribers that may include telecommunications service providers, residential or commercial users within the City?"

A Montrose Daily Press covered the decision:

“We’ve been working on improving our broadband in the community for quite some time,” Virgil Turner, city director of innovation and citizen engagement, said. “The city has recognized that broadband is an area where we are not on equal footing with the Front Range.”

The city sees the lack of broadband connectivity as such a hindrance, particularly in the business sector, that it is ready to explore options to provide that service itself, either directly or through a public ­private partnership.

In 2005, Colorado's state legislature passed new rules that prevented municipalities from providing any telecommunications services unless the community passes a referendum reclaiming the authority. As we saw in Longmont, large incumbents use their deep pockets to launch astroturf campaigns, media blitzes, and price gimmicks to mislead the community into a negative result.

Montrose, home to about 15,000 people, is on the far west of the state in Montrose County. Elected officials know that lack of broadband is a hindrance to schools, government, and the business community. Like other rural communities who have been left behind by large providers, Montrose wants to retain a quality workforce by bringing employers to the area. From the article:

“Those communities like Montrose have a different motivation than do the incumbent telecommunication providers,” Turner said. “Our motivation is that we have a great quality of life here, but our lack of broadband availability ... is degrading that quality of life. It’s forcing people to move to the areas where they can get the level of service they need. We see that as something that we can’t stand for.”

The language of the ballot measure clearly eliminates a tax increase as part of the initiative. According to the article, general support is strong:

“I don’t think it’s a tough sell,” [Mayor Judy Ann Files] said. “We can expect some opposition from the big corporations; it’s the big companies that have the state of Colorado tied down.”

A Look at Mediacom Propaganda in Emmetsburg, Iowa

Earlier this month, a majority of voters in Emmetsburg supported a proposal to issue bonds to build a fiber network. Nevertheless, the measure failed because Iowa requires a 60% majority when general obligation bonds fund all or part of a proposed project.

Years ago, the community voted to establish a municipal cable communications or television system. Emmetsburg leaders feel the time is right to realize the community vision. The proposed project would have used revenue bonds in addition to general obligation bonds.

We reported on Mediacoms' efforts to derail the vote with misleading lit drops across the community and we recently received new details on Mediacom's propaganda. The literature does not contain a "Vote No" statement, which may have allowed Medicom to avoid reporting it as an election expense.

Both pieces read like a talking point primer for industry executives. The letter from Senior Vice President Dan Templin, suggests that Mediacom is already operating gigabit service over fiber in Emmetsburg and that they intend to expand that service to business clients. The letter does not suggest that their gigabit service is affordable or reliable, neither of which are terms commonly used to describe Mediacom's services.

Mediacom was ranked last in a 2012 Consumer Report survey of 50,000 people. He, or rather his legal and marketing team, suggests the people of Emmetsburg and Mediacom "work together to leverage our [Mediacom's] investment." The people of Emmetsburg can begin working with Mediacom to "leverage" that investment by sending an email to a vague "info" email address. 

Mediacom also wrote a letter from Delbert Witzke, a Mediacom employee and local resident. It contains the classic anti-muni talking points used by these big companies headquartered far from the communities where they want to preserve their monopoly. The letter aims to inflame fears of local taxes increasing and misleads readers by implying by citing an irrelevant FCC statistic (which itself is also quite flawed).

In our experience talking with people about their cable companies, few people are so consistently critical and vehement as those stuck with Mediacom. However, enough people were swayed by Mediacom's campaign against competition in Emmetsburg to at least slow the prospect of a new network there.

Washington Post Covers Big Longmont Referendum Victory

Last week, we were excited by the results of Longmont's referendum, but we sure weren't alone. The Washington Post's Brian Fung wrote, "Big Cable may have felled Seattle's mayor, but it couldn't stop this Colo. project.

Our regular readers know that Comcast succeeded in defeating the Longmont measure in 2009 but the electoral would not be swayed by false promises and lies the second time in 2011. This year's proposal asked voters to approve a revenue bond for $45.3 million to speed up a planned expansion, which voters approved 2:1.

Contrary to past experience, Comcast and allies did not launch a full frontal assault in Longmont this year to sway the vote. Fung's article looks at the math for a possible  explanation:

There are 27,000 households in Longmont. Even if the city were to connect all of the eligible homes [close to the fiber ring] to its existing fiber network overnight, it would still reach only 1,100 residences. Cable companies therefore spent over half a million dollars [in 2011] trying to prevent four percent of city households from gaining access to municipal fiber on any reasonable timescale. That's around $600 a home, or six months' worth of Xfinity Triple Play.

Even if the cable companies decide it was not worth the fight in Longmont, they have shown repeatedly that they have cash, will travel. Feung's article describes another 2009 election in which the cable industry spent large to prevent public investment in fiber:

In North St. Paul, Minn., a 2009 ballot measure to let muni fiber move forward was defeated by a resounding 34-point margin. Opposition to the fledgling network, PolarNet, was led by the Minnesota Cable Communications Association. In the weeks leading up to the vote, it and other opposition groups spent some $40,000 campaigning against the measure. MCCA alone contributed more than $15,000 to the effort over the same period.

Comcast also exhibits its willingness to spend money to seat industry-friendly candidates. We reported on coverage in Seattle where Comcast contributed heavily to Sen. Ed Murray who won the Mayoral race. Outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn's policy initiative to bring better Internet access to the community threatened Comcast's position. Comcast denies it, but speculation abounds that McGinn's position on broadband motivated Comcast's direct and PAC contributions to Murray. 

From the Fung article:

But what Longmont's experience does show is how large the gulf is between an incumbent industry that can spend money on a massive scale to promote its interests and advocates of municipal fiber that often lack deep-pocketed allies. Those odds made the triumph of Longmont's municipal fiber backers all the more remarkable.

Election Day 2013 Community Owned Network Referendum Roundup

Starting with the good news, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly supported municipal network intiatives. Longmont voted 2:1 in favor of bonding to fast track network expansion. We have covered this issue in great depth recently. Read all of our coverage of Longmont here.

The local paper covered the referendum results in this story:

2B's passage means approval for the city to issue $45.3 million in bonds to build out the city's 17-mile fiber optic loop within three years.

Longmont Power & Communications has estimated that the payback time on the bond will be 11 years. If revenues from commercial and residential customers fall short, LPC's electric service revenues will be used to make up the shortfall, LPC staffers have told the Longmont City Council.

South in Centennial, voters supported restoring local authority to build a network by a 3:1 margin. We most recently wrote about this referendum here.

In Seattle, the mayor that campaigned on a citywide fiber network and backed off it but created a partnership with Gigabit Squared to bring gigabit fiber to 12 neighborhoods lost in his bid for reelection to the candidate that that was strongly supported with Comcast donations. However, the election does not appear to have turned on broadband issues:

McGinn’s fate was forecast two years ago, when voters slapped back his efforts to obstruct the Highway 99 tunnel project, opting to move ahead with the long-debated project. McGinn’s anti-tunnel agitating was viewed as a reversal from his 2009 election-eve pledge not to stand in the project’s way.

We continue to be disappointed in the lack of serious discussion in many races about how local governments can make meaningful improvements in Internet access for residents and businesses. We most recently covered the Seattle story here.

And finally, the disappointing news from Iowa. Though Emmetsburg received majority approval for its bond issue to build a fiber network, the 54% fell short of the 60% required for a general obligation bond. They planned to finance the investment with both a revenue bond and a general obligation bond. They will continue to seek opportunities to build the network despite this temporary setback.

As Emmetsburg Plans to Vote on Muni Network, Mediacom Misinforms

The Iowa community of 4,000 will take up Public Measure D on November 5th. Voters will decided whether to approve a $3.5 million bond issue to cover approximately half the cost to build a FTTH system. Incumbent Mediacom is distributing flyers throughout the community urging a "no" vote. Community leaders are doing their best to combat Mediacom's propaganda by educating the voters.

We reported about the community's 1998 vote to establish a municipal cable communications or television system. The city did not act on the vote at the time because the project was cost prohibitive. The estimated cost of the project is now about $3 million less than it was in the late 1990s. Emmetsburg wants to seize the opportunity by joining The Community Agency (TCA), a coalition of municipalities in the region that collectively own a hybrid fiber coaxial cable network. Emmetsburg would join with a full fiber network.

The town currently provides natural gas, water and wastewater services through its municipal utility.

In a flyer [pdf] aimed at convincing locals to vote no, Mediacom brags that "Customers in Emmetsburg get the same services as those in larger cities..." Unfortunately, Mediacom's service in larger cities is also awful and more suited to the late 1990's than the modern digital economy. Consumer Reports has rated Mediacom among the absolute worst Internet providers in the United States.

Public Question D reads:

"Shall the City of Emmetsburg, Iowa issue its notes in an amount not to exceed $3,500,000 for the purpose of paying costs of constructing and equipping all or part of the Emmetsburg Municipal Communications Utility, including the acquisition, construction and installation of a fiber to the premise broadband communications system and related equipment and distribution facilities, and including all or a portion of the costs associated with connecting the Emmetsburg Municipal Communications Utility fiber system with the system of the Community Cable Television Agency of O'Brien County a cooperative undertaking among the cities of Hartley, Paullina, Primghar and Sanborn pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 28E, Code of Iowa?" 

In addition to $3.5 million in General Obligation bonds, the Emmetsburg Municipal Utilities would issue $2.63 million in Revenue bonds.

Emmetsburg Utilities

A recent Reporter/Democrat article covered an October 29th information session in Emmetsburg. Representatives from the Emmetsburg Municipal Utility Board of Trustees hosted the meeting to educate voters. A panel of technical experts and community leaders answered residents' questions. 

Curtis Dean [Broadband Services Coordinator from the Iowa Municipal Utilities Association] cited "a real world example: "I was in Spencer for the first decade of the Century, 2000 to 2010. People in Spencer saved over $10 million total on what they paid for their telecommunication vs comparable cities served by the same providers nearby. By the way, when we calculated those numbers in Spencer, we were using Emmetsburg as the comparison." 

If the referendum does not pass, the project will not move forward. If the community approves the measure, public officials estimate construction as early as next spring.

Community leaders urge voters to vote yes. The Mayor and five City Council members published an "Open Letter To Citizens Of The Emmetsburg Community" encouraging a positive vote:

We encourage each and every eligible voter in Emmetsburg to take the time to cast your respective vote on November 5th. This is a very important decision and is one that we should make as a community. Together, we've accomplished many great things in the past. We look forward to continuing to do more of the same in the future. 

A recent letter in the Reporter/Democrat from the Emmetsburg Municipal Utilities Board of Trustees summed up the critical situation that faces many small towns with little or no telecommunications competition:

Progress needs to be supported. If we are not trying to grow we are dying. Many small county seat towns in Iowa are suffering economically and shrinking in terms of population and their ability to be viable for their citizens. This initiative to bring local telecommunications ownership back to Emmetsburg is critical in these efforts to maintain and grow our small community.

Denver Suburb Seeks to Take Back Local Authority

Centennial is asking its voters to reclaim local authority this election. City leaders want to make better use of an existing fiber optic system but a 2005 Colorado state law pushed by a corporate telephone company precludes it. If the citizenry reclaims its local authority through referendum, the City can take the next step toward providing indirect services via its fiber network. 

We contacted City Council Member Ken Lucas to find out more about the ballot question. Centennial is a relatively young city that was incorporated in 2001 and has about 100,000 residents. Lucas told us that this ballot question is not only about using their fiber resources. The community of Centennial considers this a critical step toward maintaining a business friendly environment.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided grants to install the existing network for traffic control, security cameras, and public works monitoring. The City contributed only approximately $100,000 to the network, valued at $5 million. Traffic and public safety now use only two strands of the network that runs through the center of town. City leaders want to use the remaining 94 strands to improve access in the community. To see a map of the fiber and open conduit in Centennial, check out the City's PDF.

Approximately 94% of Centennial businesses and 85% of households are within one mile of the fiber backbone. Residents and business owners can now choose between Comcast or CenturyLink and rates are high. Lucas tells of one business owner who asked Comcast to provide 1 Gbps service to his building. Comcast offered to lease a line to the business at a high rate, but the customer would still have to pay $20,000 for installation.

Community leaders want to encourage more competition and, if they eventually develop the fiber, will explore open access models. Centennial knows their authority to invest in fiber infrastructure will influence economic development. City leaders want to attract high tech jobs to the Denver suburb.

The incumbents have not yet launched an expensive astroturf campaign or lobbied heavily against the ballot question as we saw previously in Longmont. This is the ballot question language:

SHALL THE CITY OF CENTENNIAL, WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, AND TO RESTORE LOCAL AUTHORITY THAT WAS DENIED TO ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE, AND TO FOSTER A MORE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, BE AUTHORIZED TO INDIRECTLY PROVIDE HIGH-SPEED INTERNET (ADVANCED SERVICES), TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, AND/OR CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES TO RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, NON-PROFIT ENTITIES AND OTHER USERS OF SUCH SERVICES, THROUGH COMPETITIVE AND NON-EXCLUSIVE PARTNERSHIPS WITH PRIVATE BUSINESSES, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES? 

Centennial does not want to compete with Comcast or CenturyLink - it wants to encourage other providers to compete with each other. Many communites express the same desire to improve telecommunications for their citizens without delivering the services themselves. However, many have found that they have to take an active role in order to ensure a real choice between slow DSL and modestly faster cable, each owned and operated by distant corporations.

Lucas told us that plans to use the fiber are far down the road. For now, the community wants to recapture the power the state preempted in 2005.

Longmont Referendum: Haven't We Been Here Before?

November 5th probably seems like deja vu for the people of Longmont, Colorado. For the third time, the voters will respond to a ballot question that will impact their community's connectivity. Past referendums addressed whether or not the community could use its fiber ring for connecting businesses and residents.

They now have that authority. This year the question will be "when?"

Local incumbent providers grossly outspent municipal network supporters in 2009 and in 2011 with astroturf campaigns against referendums. Nevertheless, voters decided in 2011 to grant the local utility permission to use existing fiber resources to bring connectivity to businesses and residents. 

Since then, Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) began a slow build-out of fiber to businesses and homes within 500 feet of the existing loop. Local businesses, frustrated with poor service from Comcast and CenturyLink, jumped at the opportunity to have real high-speed connections. With a long list of businesses in queue for their connections, the City Council voted to use LPC reserve funds to connect businesses and residents to the loop. Clearly, the people of Longmont were ready for something better than the existing incumbent services.

Local blogger Steve Elliott connected to the service in September. To satisfy his curiosity, he ran speed tests immediately before and after he transitioned from Comcast service.

Comcast timed in at 26.08 Mbps download and 5.76 Mbps upload. LPC provided 89.99 Mbps download and 62.01 Mbps upload

From his post:

I also timed downloading movies on Netflix on my TV. Before, I could run upstairs, get an adult beverage and be back in my chair before the movie loaded. Now – if it takes 10 seconds – it’s a really long movie. 

Thumbnail of comic strip

After a month with LPC fiber and new computer system, Elliott ran more speed tests. Results topped out at 739.66 Mbps download and 534.75 upload for LPC Fiber.

Elliott also compared prices:

Comcast: $71.95 per month ($863.40 per year)

LPC Fiber $49.95 per month ($599.40 per year)

We compared Comcast to Longmont fiber in this entertaining comic strip.

Elliott is not the only Longmont resident who wants to connect to LPC fiber. Calls to "get it done" from residents and businesses did not fall on deaf ears at the May Longmont City Council meeting. The Council voted unanimously to bring fiber to every resident and business that wants it. Next, community leaders and LPC investigated financing. The reserve fund, developed from years of dark fiber lease revenue, could pay for the expansion but the project would drag out over a decade.

Rather than see the project finished in more than ten years, the community can become entirely connected within three years with a $44 million revenue bond issue. LPC will use $35.4 million as capital to build out the network and the remaining as reserve for debt-service. State legislation sponsored by USWest from 2005 imposed the referendum requirement on local communities; the voters must decide. USWest became Qwest became CenturyLink.

The Times-Call reproduced the 2B Ballot Question language:

"Without raising taxes, shall city of Longmont debt be increased in an amount not to exceed $45,300,000 by the issuance of revenue bonds for the purpose of financing fiber optic system capital improvements to provide high-speed broadband service, including but not limited to internet, voice and video services; and shall the bonds be paid solely from the city's electric and broadband utility enterprise revenues and be sold in one series or more at a price above, below or equal to the principal amount of such Bonds and with such terms and conditions, including provisions for redemption prior to maturity with or without payment of a premium of not more than 3%, as the city council may determine?"

Friends of Fiber in Longmont

Unlike past referendums, gigantic telecom providers have not spent large amounts of cash to fuel misinformation campaigns this time. Local citizen group, Friends of Fiber, is prepared to face-off against Comcast and CenturyLink. From a Times-Call article:

"It's as baffling to us as it is to you," said Scott Converse of the pro-2B group Friends of Fiber, which had been expecting to see another large push by the telecom companies. So far, he said, the only "anti" activity anyone in the group had seen was a telephone poll in September by Frederick Poll, a Virginia-based firm.

"We're wondering if maybe there's going to be a push near the end," Converse said. "I can't imagine why they're waiting."

The silence is welcome but a little eerie.

The City provides a PDF brochure on Ballot Question 2B that addresses many common questions. For more about the measure and the benefits springing from the network, listen to Chris' interviews with LPC's Vince Jordan. In the Broadband Bits podcast, Episode #10, Jordan describes the challenges LPC Fiber faced. Episode #68 deals with the upcoming referendum. Chris talks with Jordan and George Oliver from Friends of Fiber.

Update: In a letter to the editor, George Oliver wrote:

We have been providing our own electricity for more than 100 years and our rates are among the lowest in the nation. The same will be true if we expand our own fiber network. Because Longmont Power & Communications is a not-for-profit agency of the city, our low rates and network availability will help to retain and attract businesses to our city. This is the kind of visionary investment that will pay big dividends down the road.

New Comic: Longmont Fiber Crushes Comcast's Cable Outhouse

Longmont Power and Communications, a city-owned utility north of Denver in Colorado, is slowly rolling out a FTTH network to local businesses and residents that are in close proximity to its existing fiber loop. They are offering a symmetrical gigabit of Internet access for just $50/month.

Longmont Fiber Comic Strip

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The local newspaper notes that some local businesses have already signed on, including a clinic:

Jurey said the city's network is three times faster than the speeds the clinic got before at a cost savings of $1,600 a month.

On November 5, citizens will decide a referendum on whether to expedite the building by issuing revenue bonds without increasing local taxes. A brochure explaining pro and con is available here [pdf]. Approving the bonds means building the network to everyone in a few years while not approving it will mean building the network over several decades.

We recently did a podcast with Longmont Power and Communications Broadband Services Manager Vince Jordan and a local citizen campaigning for the referendum. Listen to that show here.

Read the rest of our coverage about Longmont here.

Longmont Prepares to Vote on Fiber Bonds - Community Broadband Bits Episode #68

As Longmont prepares to vote on November 5, we are paying special attention to question 2B, which will authorize the city utility to issue revenue bonds to finance the FTTH network already being built. The successful referendum from 2011 gave the City authority to build the network and this referendum, if successful, will finance a rapid expansion rather than the present incremental approach that will take decades.

We have a double interview today, with Vince Jordan rejoining the show from Longmont Power and Communications. He previously spoke with us on episode 10 but today he just gives us the facts about the network and scenarios of what will happen depending on how the city votes.

The second interview is with George Oliver, co-founder of the grassroots group Friends of Fiber that is advocating for people to vote yes on question 2B. George explains the benefits of passing this debt, namely that area residents and businesses will gain access to a world class networks without increasing any taxes.

Friends of Fiber is on Twitter and Facebook. Read our other stories on Longmont here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

WindomNet Creates Jobs, Benefits for SW Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Episode #64

The small town of Windom in southwest Minnesota has long been one of the smallest FTTH networks in the nation. I have long wanted to bring WindomNet General Manager Dan Olsen on our show because it has some of the best anecdotes in the world of community owned networks. We finally got him!

To understand WindomNet, you should know that it has fewer households than what many of us consider to be the minimum threshold for a viable triple-play FTTH network. Not only have they made it work, they have attracted numerous employers to town, as our interview discusses. It also kept a local employer located just outside of town in the area after a massive telelphone company operating in Minnesota found itself unable to provide the service that business requested. Tiny Windom ran a fiber out to the business and kept them in the region.

The network has expanded to nearby farm towns with the help of a broadband stimulus award. Even now, after bringing connections to a rural region that the big providers have largely ignored,
the big cable and CenturyLink lobbyists that live in the capital in Saint Paul have relentlessly lied about Windom, calling it a failure and presenting skewed figures to suggest the investment had not succeeded.

In our discussion, Dan and I explore the reality of WindomNet and how it is benefiting a much larger region beyond its own borders. Read all of our coverage about Windom here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.