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Centennial just became Colorado’s largest city to launch an alternative broadband service. What about the other 100+ that voted to control their internet destiny?

As communities vote to opt out of the 2005 law preventing them from offering broadband, many are discovering that voting was the easy part

The city of Centennial and Ting celebrate turning on municipal broadband to its first customer in the municipality on September 6, 2018. (Provided by the City of Centennial)
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Updated on Nov. 7, 2018: Nearly 20 more cities, counties and municipalities voted to opt out of the broadband law. See a complete list in the chart at the bottom of this story.

Ting Internet turned on gigabit broadband service to its first customers in Centennial last week. A ceremony was held in the front yard of Ting’s first official customer. The mayor attended. A giant light switch was flipped on. Cookies were served.

There was much to celebrate in the Willow Creek subdivision. While fast internet already existed from Comcast and CenturyLink, newcomer Ting holds a special place in the city’s heart. Ting leases the city-owned internet pipe, which was built after residents voted five years ago to free themselves from the constraints of the municipal broadband law passed in 2005, Senate Bill 152. Residents get a new internet alternative, while the city financially benefits.

More than 120 other cities, counties and municipalities around Colorado have also opted out of the 2005 law, which was promoted by cable and telecom companies as a more fiscally responsible thing to do with taxpayer money. Another handful — Aurora, Erie, Salida, Fountain, Town of Blue River, Cañon City, Florence and Fremont County — have it on their November ballot, according to city information, local news reports and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which runs the Community Networks project to track public investment in broadband.

Voting to get out of it, apparently, was the easy part.

Several municipalities haven’t gotten very far since they opted out. Many remain in the early phase of exploring whether to follow Centennial’s route or Longmont’s, where city-owned NextLight utility was named the nation’s fastest internet company by PC Magazine in June.

After flipping the celebratory switch, Ting Internet and Centennial city officials saw a speed test for the new gigabit internet service: 939 mbps down and 941 mbps up, or nearly 1 gigabit per second. Pictured from left to right Bob Golden, CEO of the South Metro Denver Chamber; Ting’s local manager Mark Gotto; and Centennial Mayor Stephanie Piko, at event on Sept. 6, 2018. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun.)

Over in Cherry Hills Village, nothing has happened since opting out in 2014, City Clerk Laura Gillespie said.

Mountain Parks Electric Inc. said in February that it would take Centennial’s route for towns such as Kremmling after a feasibility study showed that building a complete service from scratch could cost $95 million. But months later, the project’s status is undetermined. The utility’s general manager, Tom Silfers, told The Colorado Sun he cannot comment since it’s “still in a very preliminary state.”

Voting to opt out doesn’t guarantee a city will get its own service. It just gives municipalities the option to explore it. And not all cities have gone the ballot route, including Denver, which has multiple internet providers serving residents.

Aurora plans to ask residents in November whether to opt out of the law, but Mayor Bob LeGare said there aren’t any future plans to build city-owned internet service.

Residents can already get fast internet from Comcast, CenturyLink and other providers. The city also has fiber optic lines connecting the municipal building to emergency facilities for city services.

“I think there was a concern that carriers were going to come in and cherry-pick the city and put broadband into the rich parts of town,” LeGare said. “But that hasn’t been the case.”

Comcast said it continues to improve its internet service and now offers multi-gigabit speeds in areas that include Glenwood Springs, which in 2008 was first to opt out of the law.

“We are continuing to work throughout communities in Colorado on extending our fiber further into neighborhoods and closer to homes as part of our longstanding commitment to enriching our network with fiber to expand capacity, reliability, flexibility and offer next generation speed to our communities,” Comcast spokeswoman Leslie Oliver said in an email.

It wasn’t always that way, and that shows up in how citizens voted, said Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League, which supports opting out.

“What’s important to me is the lopsidedness of these votes in a lot of cases. I don’t think there have been any below 70 percent approval,” Bommer said. “What that tells me is that people aren’t satisfied with the speed of internet they’re getting. I think those votes are saying, ‘Can we at least look into doing some or all ourselves?’”

Smaller communities with a sparse, spread out population are figuring out how to make it work. Bommer pointed to the towns of Red Cliff and Cortez, where the lack of broadband was hurting the economy.

“Cortez is a great example of a municipality that thought, ‘We’ve got to do something or we’re going to lose businesses or we’re not going to attract businesses,’” Bommer said.

Cortez was exempted from the broadband law because it had an existing city-owned fiber network that it used to connect city services and businesses. Earlier this year, the city started a pilot program to provide broadband to residents along its fiber route. There’s a waiting list, said Rick Smith, Cortez’s general services director.

“The customers on the pilot like the service, and the city is learning a lot about how to function as an ISP,” Smith said in an email. “This is a good preparation for providing services throughout the city.”

Moving to a municipal-owned or partly owned internet system is an investment, but it has paid off for Longmont, which lost its initial bid to opt out of the law, retrenched and succeeded in 2011.

Seven years and a $45.3 million bond later, Longmont’s NextLight service signed up its first customers and the service is now available citywide. Four years on, it counts 18,300 internet customers — not bad considering the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city at 34,538 households.

It’s also profitable and on track to repay the bond by its 2029 due date or earlier, NextLight spokesman Scott Rochat said.

In January, it dropped the price of gigabit internet by 30 percent so new customers can get it for $70 a month, or $60 a month with a one-year commitment.

“Because the initial rollout was such a success, it turned out that a lower rate for our residential gigabit symmetrical service was sustainable,” Rochat said. NextLight has signed up 54 percent of the potential customers in Longmont, he said. The city’s original business plan expected to sign up only 37 percent by the end of five years.

In Centennial, Comcast and CenturyLink were widely available before the city voted to opt out. But Mayor Stephanie Piko said service was inadequate for the small business community, and that’s what motivated the city to pursue its own network.

While Ting estimates it will take another three to five years to reach every home in the city, Piko said there’s still been a benefit indirectly to all residents.

“Since we passed 152, Comcast has doubled their speed for the same price throughout the city twice,” said Piko, who is a Comcast customer. “So even if people don’t want a gig (from Ting), they’ve benefited from the competition.”

Where are they at now?

Colorado cities and municipalities began voting to get out of Senate Bill 152 and take control of their broadband options in 2008. A few, including Cortez, never had to opt out because of existing networks. Here is a check up on the earliest batch of places that opted out of the 2005 law.

Breckenridge

The city’s Town Council approved an $8 million budget to design and construct a fiber-optic line running through the town in October 2018. Breckenridge, which opted out of the law in 2016, picked Foresite Group’s broadband plan (page 52), which starts with a 17-mile fiber loop. That first phase (map is on page 54) can serve up to 5,590 homes, businesses and other “demand points.” Like Centennial, Breckenridge will use third-party service providers to offer internet and TV service to residents. Construction starts around May 2019.

Centennial

The city began constructing the first phase of its $5.7 million Fiber Master Plan in late 2016 and completed more than 39 miles in early 2018. In March, the city agreed to lease some of its newly built fiber to Ting — 432 stands to be exact. Terms were a one-time payment of $302,500 plus an annual payment of $4,325 plus interest over 20 years.  Ting’s service went live on Sept. 6, 2018, with monthly rates starting at $19 for 5 megabits per second to $89 for a 1,000 megabits (or 1 gigabit) per second.

Cortez

Cortez never opted out because it had an existing city network that was grandfathered in. The city’s Cortez Fiber Project partners with private services to provide internet, TV and voice. Its fiber network of 120,000 linear feat connects city offices, the school district and emergency services like the hospital and fire district. Businesses pay a one-time fee to tap into the city fiber network and then pick a broadband provider for service. This year, a pilot program for residents began and is currently being evaluated.

Estes Park

The town completed its feasibility study in 2015. It found that building out a service area of 300 square miles would cost about $30 million. Private companies declined to take on the project because of the low return on investment, so the city is now considering a utility revenue bond, which could be paid off in 12 to 18 years. If the process moves forward — and the town board must approve this — bidding on the project would start with construction beginning in 2019.

Fort Collins

The city has sped along to figure out how to offer a broadband alternative to residents, who voted in 2015 to opt out of the law. More recently, Fort Collins Broadband Network sold bond offerings and raised $142.2 million in June to begin construction plans in 2019. The city expects to offer service to its first customers in 2019 and continue building out the network through 2022. Live in Fort Collins? The city wants to know where you would like to see fiber on its map HERE

Fort Morgan

After opting out of the law in 2009, Fort Morgan spent $1.5 million of a $2.3 million budget to build an internet pipe connecting parts of the city. In December 2017, it partnered with Nebraska-based Allo Communications to offer residents broadband internet and TV service. Allo signed a 20-year agreement (renewable for up to another 20 years) to lease the city’s internet pipe, and the city budgeted another $4 million to make sure every home could access the pipe. Allo began installing service at customer homes on Aug. 20, and about one-third of the city is now complete, confirmed Fort Morgan city manager John Brennan.

Garfield County

Garfield County contracted NEO Connect in 2017 to study the broadband options for its community, which voted on SB-152 in 2015.

Glenwood Springs

Long before SB-152, Glenwood Springs developed a plan to use the city’s existing utility infrastructure to build a fiber network. CBN, or the Community Broadband Network, began construction in 2002 and serving business customers the same year. It also set up a wireless network to serve residential customers. Because the city-run service already existed, Glenwood Springs was exempted from 152. But it decided to let voters decide anyway and officially opted out in 2008. CBN today serves mostly business customers but discontinued residential service in 2017 because other wireless networks made its service no longer viable. “The residential market poses a decent amount of physical and financial hurdles that we hope to get over,” said Eric Arnette, the city’s director of IT/Broadband.

Grand and Jackson counties (includes Kremmling)

Unifying several mountain communities that opted out of SB-152, Mountain Parks Electric Inc. conducted a feasibility study on the cost of building a fiber-based broadband network to serve 100 percent of its customers: $95 million. The steep price prompted the co-op’s board to consider a “middle-mile system,” similar to Centennial’s, where an internet backbone would be constructed and then private companies would tap in to offer internet to residents. Construction could take 12 to 24 months and “will not significantly impact MPE’s electric rates or financing,” according to MPE in February. But plans, as of September, are still very preliminary, said Tom Silfers, the utility’s general manager.

Longmont

Longmont sought to opt out of Senate Bill 152 twice. The first time failed in 2009. But another attempt two years later passed, and Longmont became the first to offer gigabit internet from a city-owned service called NextLight. The community approved a $45.3 million bond issue in 2013 to fund construction, which began in August 2015. The first customers went live that November. NextLight currently offers gigabit-speed internet to 18,300 residents starting at $40 for 25 mbps and $70 for 1 gbps.

Loveland

The city of Loveland, which opted out in 2015, took a major step Nov. 6, 2018 when its City Council voted to establish a city-owned broadband utility using bonds and regional partners, including Fort Collins and Longmont. The construction process could take three years. As of Nov. 2018, the city had invested $2.75 million to study the feasibility of building its own broadband network. On Jan. 15, 2019, City Council approved a bond package to raise $97 million to finance the city’s broadband construction. More details are available at letstalkloveland.org/lets-talk-broadband

Montrose and Delta counties

Four years after opting out, Montrose is working with its local electricity co-op to build Elevate Fiber, which will be a full-fiber network throughout the Delta-Montrose Electric Inc. Future profits will go back into the business. Elevate expects to charge between $50 and $80 a month for residential internet service with speeds between 100 mbps to 1 gbps.

Ophir

This small mountain town in San Miguel County opted out in 2015. That same year, Ophir set aside $126,000 to create a Municipal Broadband Fund. In 2017, the town had received grant money from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, plus commitments from the local community to move ahead and build a “middle mile” fiber network. A private broadband provider would offer wireless internet service to customers. The total cost of the project was expected to be about $300,000.

Wray

The small northeastern Colorado community, which opted out in 2014, created a public-private partnership to build an internet backbone in the city at a cost of about $1.4 million. That remains owned by the city. The private partner, Plains Cooperative Telephones, committed to an additional $1.4 million to install fiber to customers within town limits, which started in 2018. The service starts at 10 mbps for $65 and tops out at $450 for 1 gpbs.

Have an update? Please send details to tamara@coloradosun.com

This story was updated on Nov. 7, 2018 with local broadband results from the 2018 election. The story was updated on Jan. 19, 2019, on Loveland’s $97 million bond approval; on Nov. 11, 2018 with information from the city of Loveland and on Oct. 18, 2018 with information from the Town of Breckenridge.

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