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Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 17

This week, cities took the stage and made some very important moves to restore their local authority. From cities resisting big media mergers, to those choosing to join the new Next Century Cities initiative, it is a good time to be a part of municipal government efforts. 

Broadband Cities

Boulder, CO officials are looking ahead at their Longmont neighbor's gig network and exploring ways to make sure their own businesses are not left in the dust. Boulder’s chamber is pushing for an approval of ballot issue “2C”. Gavin Dahl of Boulder Weekly writes that the ballot question would open the way for the city to offer competitive gig services, helping the city keep existing businesses happy, and entice others to move in.

But according to Boulder News’, Erica Meltzer, opponents still seem to have their heads in the sand; The libertarian Independence Institute says if there was a market for fiber in the city, “some business” will find a way.  Maybe they think competitive, affordable Internet will just appear.

Meantime, Columbia, Missouri government officials may be facing an uphill battle. The city is exploring how to light its dark fiber infrastructure. Opponents say the plan goes against state restrictions on the city offering such services directly to customers. We believe the move would encourage competition among ISPs that would otherwise not be able to operate because of a lack of capital required to build fiber networks.

Cities choosing to keep ownership of their fiber infrastructures is often a sound decision, and North Kansas City, Missouri residents may soon be appreciating the city’s most recent announcement. In an effort to “give back” to residents, LiNKCity officials say that beginning in 2015 residential customers can get free Internet service. The decision is thanks to a unique partnership with a server farm company. 

From GovTech’s Colin Wood:

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this, in fact,” said Chris Mitchell, adding that he guesses DataShack intends to boost profits by gaining more local businesses as customers, and will do so by offering additional services like cloud-based storage -- services the city did not offer.”

Add Baltimore to the list of cities that are “fighting for fiber,” according to the Baltimore Sun’s Scott Dance. The Baltimore Broadband Coalition is working to convince citizens and city officials to explore municipal fiber. Harlem entrepreneurs are exploring how gigabit speeds can be a boon to businesses and startups, but also have a positive community impact:

"A lot of the broadband announcements were around wireless ... and that has a ways to go in terms of being effective…  it's important for the community to understand that broadband is essential to lowering crime, increasing education opportunities and closing the wealth gap."

Just outside of San Antonio, the community of New Braunfels, Texas is moving forward with a feasibility study. And not one but three Connecticut communities are taking broadband futures in their own hands. Mayors from New Haven, West Hartford, and Stamford are banding together to solve the state’s broadband problems. GovTech’s Colin Wood tapped Chris Mitchell for insight:

“I watch with a sort of nervous excitement. It’s exciting to see these cities working together and recognizing that they have a need. But I get nervous because I feel like they’re going to get responses to their RFQ, and the easiest thing to do will be for some ISPs to commit to only building out some areas of town. And I think that’s dangerous fundamentally.”

Next Century Cities

Solidarity and learning from city successes and challenges are core values of the newly launched Next Century Cities initiative. Mayors and city leaders from all over the country converged on Santa Monica, to support each other in their broadband efforts. From Sandy, Oregon to Morristown, Tennessee, 32 cities announced their commitment to six basic principles that will help lead communities to self-determination in their broadband endeavors.

Before heading to Santa Monica, one of the major voices for broadband, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, spoke on a panel in Boston to urge cities to move forward independent of federal programs. Do yourself a favor and head to twitter, type #NCCLaunch and read the stream of comments. Then head to the initiative web page, watch the webcast, educate yourself and urge your city officials to take action.

Comcast/TWC Merger

Franchise agreements between cities and Time Warner Cable may be key to blocking Comcast and TWC’s proposed merger. More and more cities are standing up and demanding real choice in their communities; this week several stepped forward.

According to Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, city council leaders in Lexington, Kentucky say TWC’s refusal to address customer service complaints are the reason they are denying transfer of ownership. Consumer advocates like John Bergmayer hope others follow suit. 

"I suppose the broader question is whether a single municipality by itself can stop this merger. Maybe not, but it’s unlikely that any one town would be acting alone. If I were Comcast or Time Warner, I’d be looking nervously at my other franchise agreements in towns around the country, and at the states. Taken together these actions could imperil the merger—and might give the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and DoJ [Department of Justice] even more incentive to act."

And city council leaders in Worcester, Massachusetts are attempting to block Comcast from entering the area this week as well, it seems “substandard customer service” is finally beginning to bite the company back. The Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill has the story:

"It's a terrible company," City Councilor Gary Rosen said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out."

Boulder Chamber Supports Ballot Measure to Restore Local Authority

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce has come out in favor of ballot measure 2C, which would restore the City of Boulder's authority to provide telecommunications services to its residents. From the Chamber's website:

City of Boulder 2014 Ballot Measure 2C – Affirming the City’s Right to Provide Telecommunication Services

Colorado State Bill 152 precludes cities from offering broadband services without an exemption provided by a vote of the people. Boulder currently has over 100 miles of fiber-optic cable providing high-speed Internet capabilities to city offices, the University of Colorado and the federal labs.  If 2C passes,  the City would be granted the authority to expand that network to residents or businesses.

The Boulder Chamber has taken a leadership role on 2C, stating: “[P]artnership with the private sector may well represent the fastest, most seamless path to providing service to our residents and students, and to attracting and retaining the companies that drive our innovation economy. And there are partners in the community who could leverage such an opportunity.”

Local business communities are often the first to benefit from the cheaper, better, faster service when municipalities expand their networks. As the Chamber's statement notes, Boulder already has over 100 miles of fiber installed but is blocked from leveraging those assets by SB 152, which effectively outlaws community networks unless voters pass a referendum restoring local authority. Because deep-pocketed incumbents typically spend heavily to defeat such referenda and public agencies are blocked from lobbying on their own behalf, support from local groups like Chambers of Commerce are crucial.

Boulder stands to join the ranks of Longmont, Centennial, Montrose, and other Colorado communities that have voted to restore their local authority. So far, despite the obstacles and incumbent spending, every Colorado municipality that has put the issue on the ballot has passed it - eventually. 

The Past and Future of Muni Fiber in Boulder - Community Broadband Bits Episode 108

Boulder is the latest Colorado community to recognize the benefits of using city-owned fiber to spur job growth and improve quality of life. Boulder Director of Information Technology Don Ingle joins us for episode 108 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the many ways in which Boulder has benefited from community owned fiber over the past 15 years and the smart policies they have used to expand conduit throughout the community.

We finish with a discussion about the upcoming referendum that Boulder will likely place on the November ballot to regain local authority to use and expand its fiber assets to encourage job growth and increase residential options.

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 17 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Another Colorado Community May Reclaim Local Telecommunications Authority

Boulder's City Council is considering November ballot question to restore local authority for municipal telecommunications services. The measure, if passed, will create an exemption to the 2005 Colorado law allowing Boulder to better use its existing fiber optic infrastructure.

Apparently, the Boulder community has a self-reliant streak. This is not the first time the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has reported on the community of 97,000. John Farrell, Director of the Democratic Energy initiative, has followed the grassroots campaign to establish a city-owned electric utility in Boulder.

The Daily Camera reports that City Council staff, in a memo to Members, recommend the community seek authority to make use of existing assets. The City owns an extensive network of conduit that it began developing in the 1990s. Boulder has aggressively expanded the network, leasing it to private partners and using the space for a fiber I-Net to connect over 50 municipal facilities.

The Boulder Research and Administration Network (BRAN) serves the City, the University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Each of the four entities shared equally in funding the $1.2 million eleven mile network. Boulder is an administering partner for BRAN and hopes to capitalize on that relationship even further.

Approximately 10% of Boulder's residents have home-based businesses, reports City Council staff. The community ranks high in the concentration of software engineers, innovators, and scientists. Businesses with less than 100 employees comprise 97% of firms in Boulder. Local surveys indicate the business community is hungry for better services. From the Daily Camera article:

[Director of Information Technology Don] Ingle said the city has no concrete plans in place to pursue partners, but he believes there will be a lot of interest if Boulder can get the authority.

"The broadband capacity currently offered by the private sector is not large enough," he said. "Given all the business innovation going on with the tech center, that level of connectivity would be a huge asset."

In the past, City leaders hoped to catch Google's attention but the election successes in Longmont, Centennial, and Montrose have inspired Boulder to take action rather than wait indefinitely. Boulder policy advisor Carl Castillo, told the Daily Camera city leaders believe the 2005 law poisoned the city's chances of becoming a Google Fiber community.

"The way we look at it is that our taxpayers have paid for these assets, and we're not able to leverage these assets to offer higher-speed Internet at lower cost," Castillo said. "Right now, we can't really engage in these discussions. We're really going to be behind the ball if we don't have this authority."

Connecticut Power Outage Shows Superiority of Community Ownership

Rob Cox, a writer for Reuters, has delved into the disappointing response of some investor-owned utilities in Connecticut following the recent blizzard, noting the better performance of muni power companies. Hurricane Irene recently revealed the similar superiority of muni electrics compared to the investor-owned in Massachusetts, prompting us to note the parallels with Wired West's initiative in Western Massachusetts. They have created an electric light coop to build a next-generation fiber-optic network out to everyone in the area.

And on the same day that Longmont embraced locally owned broadband in Colorado, nearby Boulder started the process of kicking Xcel out in favor of an electric grid that is accountable to the public.

So let's see what the New York Times has to say about municipal ownership of infrastructure. They begin by noting the many ways Connecticut Light and Power (the subsidiary of Northeast, an investor owned utility presently consolidating with another large IOU) has cut its maintenance spending over the last few years -- leaving many more power lines vulnerable to the tree-bending blizzard.

There’s even a near-perfect model of how Connecticut Light and Power could have done the job better. Norwich, Conn., a city of 40,000, has owned its own electric utility, as well as those for sewage, gas and water, for 107 years. Norwich Public Utilities’ customers pay, on average, a bit less than Connecticut Light and Power’s. Yet after this past weekend’s snow dump, power was out for only about 450 of its 22,000 customers — and for no more than an hour. As of Thursday morning, nearly half a million Connecticut Light and Power customers were still waiting for the lights to go on.

That’s not luck, either. After Irene hit, just 13 percent of the city’s customers lost their power for more than a day. Within three days, the whole of Norwich had been restored. It took more than a week for Connecticut Light and Power to fully restore power.

To reiterate, the publicly owned system is cheaper, more reliable, and responds more quickly in emergencies. Sounds like efficiency.

That makes it seem odd that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has tended to appear alongside Connecticut Light and Power’s Mr. Butler and to support the utility, even though far more customers lost power than should have and restoration proceeded too slowly. There’s solid numerical evidence to justify Mr. Malloy’s berating Connecticut Light and Power and calling for Mr. Butler’s head on behalf of the citizens of his state.

And yet, we see the exact same response from elected officials in the face of a less efficient private sector -- they blindly embrace the private sector, pretending we have no other options.

Connecticut Light and Power Logo

In contrast to Connecticut Light and Power, Norwich’s electric unit last year increased operations and maintenance spending by 11 percent, to $2.9 million. Put another way, in 2010 Norwich allocated about $132 a customer to this line item in its accounts. Connecticut Light and Power reported maintenance, unadjusted for deferred expenses, of $96.5 million, or around $78 per client.

Well, that is curious. The publicly owned utility is able to charge less for power while spending more per ratepayer. And we know that more money from the local utility stays in the community whereas the absentee-owned companies result in fund flight.

It helps that the Norwich utilities are not slaves to the profit motive — though they hand 10 percent of gross revenue to the city.

Whoops! There goes the whole "they have an advantage because they don't pay taxes BS argument...

Last year, before paying this slice to the city, the electricity division made just a 3.6 percent operating profit margin on its $52.3 million of revenue. The Connecticut Light and Power division of Northeast, meanwhile, booked $3 billion of revenue last year and reported an operating margin nearly five times the size of Norwich’s. But it surely also helps that Norwich Public Utilities’ general manager, 12 linemen and five commissioners live in the community, drive the local roads, see the overhanging branches and bump into their customers at the Norwichtown Mall. That’s a rare kind of accountability.

It shouldn't be a "rare" kind of accountability if we recognized the limits of where the private sector excels and encouraged it to "tend to its knitting" as my grandma says.

Photo, courtesy of autowitch on flickr.

Longmont Chooses Local Self-Reliance

What a difference two years and a strong grassroots campaign makes. Two years ago, Comcast's ability to spend $245,000 on a campaign of lies was the determining factor over Longmont's decision about using publicly owned infrastructure to expand broadband competition.

Yesterday, despite Comcast spending even more by again funneling hundreds of thousands through the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Commission, voters overwhelmingly supported question 2A - reinstating local government authority to offer telecommunications services using its infrastructure.

Full congratulations must go to the Longmont citizens who organized a truly grassroots campaign that sent people out on the streets with signs, organized informational events, disseminated press releases, maintained an information web page (and Facebook page), wrote letters to the editor, commented on online news stories, and otherwise educated their peers about the opportunity 2A offered. Craig Settles is also celebrating with a post describing the victory.

Once again, the question was:

Without increasing taxes, shall the citizens of the City of Longmont, 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 and the service area of the City's electric utility enterprise?

Question 2A results

The results were 60.8% Yes, 39.2% No. 13,238 voted yes whereas 8,529 voted against.

The Times-Call has already posted a story about the results, including some curious points from the pro-Comcast group's spokesman (and Denver resident) George Merritt.

"While we remain concerned about the disappointing track record of municipal telecoms, we hope our city has learned from the mistakes made by other cities and that taxpayers are protected with whatever venture develops as a result of the passage of Question 2A," Merritt said.

Despite spending probably over $300,000 (we won't know for a few days), Comcast and allies couldn't even find a Longmont resident to be their spokesperson!!

Practically no one in Longmont supported Comcast's position, as we noted yesterday - everyone campaigning for office supported reinstating local authority to provide broadband services. The newspapers supported the effort. In debates, the only people willing to defend Comcast's position were from out of town.

For just about everyone, this was a no-brainer: The City should be free to use assets it built long ago to expand economic development and broadband access. And yet, Comcast's $300,000 still got 39% to support letting City assets go unused while local businesses and residents are overpaying Comcast and CenturyLink for those services.

One of the most unique ways Longmont's elected leaders discussed this issue occurred during a City Council meeting. During that meeting, each official approached the podium and made a public comment about why they supported the 2A initiative. Unfortunately, we have not been able to locate video or audio, but the idea may inspire other communities as they seek to educate the community about the benefits of local, community ownership.

In other good news, nearby Boulder also embraced local self-reliance by narrowly voting to consider municipalization of the electrical grid. Xcel Energy spent close to a million dollars in a similar scare-campaign to Comcast in Longmont but Boulder voters decided to trust their local government more than a distant mega-corporations. Progress.