Rural areas commit to broadband
Voters in Rio Blanco County, other communities OK funds
With only 6,000 people living in what geographically is the fourth-largest county in Colorado, Rio Blanco County never has been a magnet for private investment in broadband and telecommunications service.
“When it comes to putting broadband in our county, it’s not a good business model for anybody,” said County Commissioner Shawn Bolton.
So the county took it on itself to improve local broadband service, committing $7 million in funds to build infrastructure. And in this month’s election, about a third of the county’s population — 2,109 voters, to be exact — agreed to the county’s proposal, with only 509 voting no.
The vote was just one of several Colorado measures this fall in which voters agreed, in every case overwhelmingly, to authorize local governments to build fiber networks. Other approvals came in San Miguel and Yuma counties in the communities of Red Cliff in Eagle County, Boulder, Yuma, Wray and Cherry Hills Village, according to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research and educational organization.
“I think this frankly was the sleeper issue” of this fall’s election in Colorado, said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.
“It’s clearly something our citizens are saying, ‘Hey, local governments, we want you to step up to the plate and help address the issue.’”
“This is an incredible mandate for local authority,” Christopher Mitchell, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in a news release. “From the most conservative communities to the most progressive, a stunning majority believe decisions about municipal fiber networks should be made locally.”
The questions are going before local voters in Colorado because of a 2005 law that made the state one of the 19 that now limit local authority to build fiber networks, the institute says. Mamet said such bans came at a time of widespread concern that governments needed to be kept from directly competing with the telecommunications industry in operating broadband.
But when Colorado’s measure was passed, Mamet said an exemption was added following “quite a tussle” between his group and the telecommunications industry. It allows for voters to be asked to decide whether a community should be able to provide such service, either directly or through a public-private partnership.
Voters in other communities also have provided that authority, including Longmont, Centennial, and, earlier this year, Montrose, where 74 percent of voters approved the measure.
Its passage “was the first step to reaching the goal of ensuring our city is not limited when it comes to taking full advantage of the services that are available via the internet,” the city of Montrose says on its website.
It quotes its mayor, Bob Nicholson, as saying, “Ensuring our citizens have access to robust broadband service is as much a quality-of-life issue as providing clean drinking water, safe neighborhoods, and affordable housing. If the private sector is unable or unwilling to meet our community’s need for broadband services, it is imperative we as a municipal government act to meet this need.”
Montrose is now helping lead a regional broadband implementation planning effort.
Mamet said that often the requests for community votes “come from small businesses who want the broadband access and want their local governments to get into this arena.”
Bolton said that for Rio Blanco County and the towns of Rangely and Meeker, adequate broadband access is crucial to being able to diversify their economies.
The county has committed $2 million in federal mineral lease revenues to the effort and $5 million from the county’s general fund. It also plans to seek state Department of Local Affairs funds.
Bolton said the county won’t provide broadband service itself, but instead will install infrastructure such as fiber lines.
“By providing infrastructure, then we can get the service providers to come here and provide the service at a competitive rate,” he said.
He said a number of providers are interested in working with the county.
Mamet finds it interesting that local support for such efforts is coming from across the state, in both urban and rural areas, and that the issue is nonpartisan as well.
The local-authority elections are coming at a time of concern that the United States is lagging behind other countries in terms of the quality of the broadband service available to its residents. Mamet said some municipal leaders are questioning whether Colorado’s 2005 law is needed at all. He said he’s not sure his group is ready to ask the legislature to repeal it. But there may be legislation to at least modify it, such as to address possible impediments it places on partnerships with third-party vendors, he said.
Meanwhile, he notes that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has been a strong proponent of municipalization of broadband and having the FCC override state laws.
“That obviously has created quite a bit of controversy with the private providers,” he said.
But he added, “There’s clearly a national debate going on (about) this around the country.”