The broadband debate: What ‘we’ want versus what ‘they’ want
It’d be easy, I told one prominent events center proponent when we met for coffee last week, to write about the proposed center that day. It was Thursday morning. The previous evening the Grand Junction City Council, in a split vote, decided not to take the second step to investigate the possibility of municipal broadband service in the city.
“They won’t give us what we want (high speed broadband),” went the first portion of the headline I semi-seriously proposed, “so we won’t give them what they want (an events center).”
An events center column will come later, but there’s one glaring similarity between the two projects. The events center would carry a $62 million price tag while $70 million was floated as an early estimate for developing municipal broadband. Close enough for government work, as the old saw goes.
There’s also a notable difference. The events center has yet to pass voter muster. That decision comes four weeks from today. But just short of two years ago Grand Junction voters gave implied permission to move toward municipal broadband by approving a ballot measure overriding prohibitions in state law.
To date, 64 other Colorado cities and towns have also done that. More than half of Colorado’s counties have taken that step, including most Western Slope counties. Indeed, it’s mostly here on the sunset side of the Continental Divide that government efforts to provide broadband services in some form seem most advanced.
So what do city leaders in places like Glenwood Springs, Cortez and Steamboat Springs know that our own council members don’t?
Retaining outdoor manufacturer Osprey Packs would have been a non-starter for Cortez absent the city’s broadband infrastructure said that city’s general services director, Rick Smith, in a June Daily Sentinel article. In that same piece, information services director Bob Farmer talked about the advantages of Glenwood Springs getting into broadband nearly a decade ago.
“I want my children to have adequate access to technology when they grow up and that starts with me,” Farmer said. “It doesn’t start with waiting for them to do something.”
Rio Blanco County is in the process of installing fiber in partnership with Rangely, Meeker, local schools and other entities. The Region 10 area, which encompasses Delta and Montrose and includes the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, is in the initial stages of developing community broadband services. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs helps with funding selected projects.
Steamboat Springs and the Northwest Colorado Broadband Consortium acted quickly after their 2015 voter override. Fiber installation is underway. “The results are dramatic—- better service for lower cost” and “a many-fold increase in internet speeds” according to the city’s information services manager, Vince O’Connor.
Similarly-sized communities on the Front Range, Fort Collins and Fort Morgan, are in early phases of their projects. Longmont subscribed more than 50 percent of homes passed by its new 17-mile fiber cable at a $49.95 charter-member rate. Grand Junction’s study conservatively projected a 32-percent “take rate” to arrive at a $70 monthly charge.
The derailed public-private partnership that was proposed for Grand Junction projected exponentially faster 1-gigabit service at about $70/month for residential service and $300/month for businesses. Businesses now pay three times that amount for similar service, where it’s available, or drive to nearby communities to upload and download data. City-provided fiber infrastructure could have hosted multiple private providers but retained accountability over those services.
Last Friday, I listened to two City Council candidates discuss the broadband issue. Challenger Duke Wortmann agreed with the majority of sitting council members who voted not to move forward. Incumbent Marty Chazen, a self-professed “numbers guy,” saw moving forward with the second step of a broadband study as “too risky for my taste.”
They’re both wrong.
If vision and leadership demands it, there are a variety of ways to make the numbers work. Bailing out prematurely from an effort to determine if it’s possible to efficiently provide affordable and accessible universal access to high-speed internet is shortsighted. It shouldn’t be too much to expect our elected leaders to make every effort to implement priorities set by their constituents.
It’s too bad our timid City Council doesn’t see that providing a fast lane on the information highway is as necessary in today’s world as a pothole-free First Street.