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Ahead of the White House Colorado communities taking on the high-speed Internet challenge with gusto

Since President Obama outlined a plan in November to spur broadband competition while safeguarding “net neutrality” – helping ensure that no one company can act as a gatekeeper to digital content and the speed at which it’s delivered – many communities across the country have begun considering whether and how to meet the challenge.

In tech-savvy Colorado, however, a few cities and towns are way ahead of the White House. Municipalities already are in various stages of setting up high-speed broadband offerings, either city-run or as public-private partnerships.

In his State of the Union address, Obama cited cities such as Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has spurred economic development by offering Internet speeds nearly 100 times faster than the national average and at affordable rates. In a report titled “Community-based broadband solutions: The benefits of competition and choice for community development and high-speed Internet access,” the White House said it wants to end laws in 19 states – including Colorado – that it claims “harm broadband service competition.”

A Colorado law passed in 2005 requires municipalities to hold a referendum before providing cable, telecommunications or broadband service unless the community had been previously unserved.
Longmont held such a referendum in 2009, but telecommunications companies spent nearly $200,000 in a successful bid to defeat it. When the question returned to the ballot two years later, the telecom companies spent twice as much in their campaign against it – but that time, voters said “yes.” In 2013, they approved a $45.3 million bond issue to build the NextLight network,
That time, however, voters OK’d the proposal, and then two years later approved a $45.3 million bond issue to build the network, which promises Internet data downloads at nearly 1 gigabit per second – fast enough to nab a full-length movie in about 30 seconds. In comparison, most Longmont homes that get their Internet through a cable or telephone company top out at about one-fifth that speed.

Crews are working neighborhood by neighborhood to install the service, which Tom Roiniotis, director of Longmont Power and Communications, said is funded solely through the revenue it generates.

Meanwhile, 92 percent of Estes Park residents voted on Feb. 3 to allow the mountain town to make its fiber optic network available for everyone.

The Estes Park Economic Development Corporation’s Competitive Broadband Committee, which requested the ballot initiative, wasted no time in setting up a series of meetings for local residents and businesses to help shape the system; the first ones were scheduled for the first two days after the election. The work of consultant NEO Fiber, which is hosting the meetings, is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Last November, Boulder voters overwhelmingly approved Issue 2C, giving the city broadband authority. The city has about 100 miles of fiber-optic network at its disposal, but city leaders have said they likely would find a private partner instead of trying to run a municipal system themselves.

On that same day, similar issues also passed by large margins in the towns of Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Wray and Yuma, and in Rio Blanco and Yuma counties, Grand Junction voters will decide on community broadband there in April.

Loveland city leaders began discussing the possibility of bringing municipal high-speed Internet to the Sweetheart City at their Jan. 24 retreat.

“Today’s Internet is the product of broadband connectivity,” noted Federal Communications Commission chief Tom Wheeler during a Feb. 9 speech in Boulder, but he added that 17 percent of U.S. households – disproportionately in rural and tribal areas – don’t have access to what’s now defined as fast online speeds: 25 megabits per second for downloads and three mb/s for uploads. And for those households who do have high-speed connections, he said, “75 percent can only choose from one carrier.”

“There’s a lack of meaningful competition,” Wheeler said. “Where there is no choice, the market can’t work.”

Often, Wheeler said, connectivity issues aren’t as much about speed as about bandwidth sucked dry by simultaneous connections. “A typical American family of four has seven broadband-connected devices,” he said. “The FCC should establish a standard that makes sure innovation isn’t held back by network capacity.”

The five-person FCC scheduled a Feb. 26 vote on Wheeler’s White House-backed “net neutrality” proposal to apply “a modernized version” of Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 to broadband providers, essentially classifying Internet service providers as public utilities, an option that cable companies and other providers have vigorously opposed. Among other things, the classification would prohibit ISPs from imposing surcharges for faster service while leaving less-wealthy customers with slower speeds. “It would ban paid prioritization, and apply equally to wired and wireless services,” he said.

Opponents of the FCC’s plan cite several potential pitfalls and express fears that the government could dictate pricing that service providers charge consumers and content providers, thus stifling competition and innovation. In his speech in Boulder, Wheeler disputed that contention.

“If an industry action hurts consumers, competition or innovation,” he said, “the FCC will have the authority to throw a flag.”