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After Local Communities Reclaim Authority, Comcast Turns Up Speed In Colorado

On November 4th, voters in several Colorado communities decided to reclaim local authority to provide telecommunications services. As Coloradans celebrated their steps toward self-reliance, Comcast felt a little quiver in its cowboy boots. KMGH in Denver is now reporting that Comcast plans to double Internet speeds at no extra charge for some Colorado customers. Customers now signed up for download speeds of 25 Mbps or 50 Mbps will see their speeds double at no extra charge by the end of the year.

KMGH reporter Ryan Tronier also notes that the recent election may have played a part in Comcast's decision to turn up the speed:

While the doubling of internet speeds is great news for Comcast customers, the move may not be as benevolent as it seems.

Comcast's announcement comes on the heels of seven Colorado cities and counties deregulating restrictive internet laws during the midterm elections. 

As many of our readers know, SB152 was passed in 2005 and prevents local governments from establishing telecommunications utilities unless voters approve an exemption. Exemptions passing in Boulder, Wray, Yuma, Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Yuma County, San Miguel County, and Rio Blanco County appear to have been inspired by similar ballot measures years prior in Centennial, Montrose, and Longmont. Longmont is well into deploying its FTTH network.

With President Obama's recent support for reclassification to Title II as part of a free and open Internet plan, and Comcast's ongoing bid to merge with Time Warner Cable, a number of factors are still unsettled. Comcast is inclined to strategically present tidbits like this as a way to sweeten public perception when they want something of value.

Internet Essentials, Comcast's program for low income families was unveiled at a time when the cable behemoth wanted approval for its NBC acquisition. CEO David Cohen has admitted that it was used as a bargaining chip and it has since proved itself to be as much an obstacle as a tool. Unfortunately, Internet Essentials customers will not be included in this speed increase. In a place like Colorado where local communities are asserting their independence from one of the most hated companies in America, turning up the speed for free is the least Comcast can do.

Nevertheless, this is the latest example of how municipal networks, or the possibility of them, can inspire positive behavior from incumbents. In Columbia, Missouri, the local business community could not get adequate services from CenturyLink.  After announcing its intention to explore municipal fiber resources for commercial uses, CenturyLink decided it would offer gigabit service to a limited number of properties.

Colorado Comcast customers can expect their free speed increases by the end of 2014. While the increases are great news for existing customers, they do nothing for competition or for rural folks who are not served by the cable giant. Comcast customers who live in Denver can thank voters in Boulder, Wray, Yuma, Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Yuma County, San Miguel County, and Rio Blanco County for their faster Internet speeds.

LPC Residential Gig Service in Longmont Has A New Name; Available November 3rd

Big changes are happening in Longmont as the LPC builds out its network expansion. In addition to new services and new pricing, LPC for residents has a new name - NextLight. At a recent city council meeting, LPC announced that a number of residents in south central Longmont will be able to enroll for NextLight services as soon as November 3rd.

Homeowners who sign up within the first three months that service is available in their area, will get 1 Gbps symmetrical service for about $50 per month or half the regular residential price. Those customers, considered Charter Members, will keep the introductory price as long as they keep their service and will take that rate to their new home while also reserving that rate for the home they leave. The Times Call reports:

And if a homeowner does not sign up in the first three months, they could still obtain a customer loyalty price after one year, knocking the regular price down from $100 a month to $60 a month.

The city will also offer a lesser speed of 25 megabits per second for both uploading and downloading for about $40 a month and that price is not discounted for charter members or 1-year-members.

 At the meeting, LPC Director Thomas Roiniotis explained the reason for the new brand:

NextLight was named with Longmont's original municipal electricity utility that the city acquired in 1912 in mind.

"What we're saying is now, today, with the same type of community support, we're building a network that uses beams of light to transmit information," Roiniotis said Monday.

Longmont Schools Save, Increase Bandwidth With Help from LPC

Schools in Longmont recently began working with Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) to increase bandwidth, save money, and begin implementing a new technology plan. As part of the plan, every middle school student in Longmont was assigned an iPad mini this school year.

Jon Rice from the Longmont Compass alerted us to the program that takes advantage of the new 10 Gig wide area network. LPC installed the WAN this summer for the St. Vrain Valley School District. The network has a 20 Gbps ring and each school has an active 10 Gbps link with a second 10 Gbps ring for redundancy. The district's Chief Information Officer, Joe McBreen summed up the situation:

“We really needed to give ourselves some breathing room,” he said. The new LPC  “pipe,” he said, gave St. Vrain 10 times the bandwidth while saving $100,000 a year and allowing teaching and learning to be exponentially improved.

According to McBreen, bandwidth demands used to take up 80 - 90 percent of the district's bandwidth, but now only requires 5 percent on a typical day, even with the new devices.

Not long ago, LPC announced a new $49.95 per month gigabit service for residents and businesses. If customers sign up early, LPC guarantees the price for an extended period. The price remains the same at that residence, regardless of who owns the home. LPC expects to finish its current expansion work in 2017. 

In the short video below, School Board Member Paula Peairs notes that the district's savings on connectivity costs allows them to direct more funds to devices, staff training, and classes for students.

"The fact that the City has established that and built us the infrastructure to apply it is enormous. We have a community that supports that and really puts us in a unique position."

Matt Scheppers, Electrical Operations Manager at LPC, said of the utility's new service to the school:

"We are really excited to see what they do with it and we are going to accommodate them in the future; if they need more speed we will be able to provide that too. We're real excited about that opportunity." 

Video: 
See video

Sign Up Early for A Gig in Longmont, Colorado

If you are in Longmont, you can sign up for gigabit service from LPC for only $49.95 per month. The Longmont Compass reports that customers who sign up within the first three months will retain that price point for an as yet undetermined extended period. AND, that price stays with the home if the customer sells, adding substantial value to the real estate.

The Compass also spoke with General Manager Tom Roiniotis about LPC's decision to offer Internet and voice but not video: 

“Cable TV is a dying industry. People want to get the TV that they want, not the TV that the cable companies force them to get.”

When pressed for an example, Roiniotis considered sports. If you want to watch an NFL game, why should you have to pay for two hundred channels you’ll never even tune into? There is a growing consensus that audiences don’t want to watch the movie that happens to be on Showtime right now, they want to choose when to start, when to pause, and what movie they’re interested in. As he put it, “The consumer is finally becoming king in the world of TV.”

“In five years, I can see Xfinity (the Comcast content delivery network) using our fiber-optic to deliver their content,” he says. “So instead of investing another $20M in the technology to deliver cable, we save that money and let the consumers drive the future of content delivery.”

LPC began construction on the expansion in August with completion scheduled for 2017. Last fall, voters passed a referendum to bond in order to speed up construction.

Letters to the editor from Longmont locals express impatience. They want better services! P.R. Lambert recently wrote:

It's really sad that the Longmont fiber optic Internet will take so long to be installed. From what I see, the two major competitors (Comcast and Century Link) seem to believe that customers are a bother.

One of those has pricing on their web page that they refuse to honor, while the other will not even try to be competitive.

The Compass shared this video to illustrate what lucky Longmonters have coming to them:

Video: 
See video

Denver Post Editorial Takes Aim at Colorado Law Limiting Investment

SB 152, the telecom incumbent-supported Colorado law that restricts municipalities from building broadband networks or even partnering with other entities to do the same, is increasingly coming under fire. The City of Longmont passed a referendum to restore its local authority in 2011 and has started construction on a project that will make it Colorado's first gig city.

Centennial and Montrose voters have chosen to restore their authority as well. Boulder plans to put a similar measure to the test in elections this fall. So far, every community in Colorado that has put restoring local authority on the ballot has gotten it done - despite heavy incumbent spending and astroturf activism.

Now, an editorial in the Denver Post has called even more attention to the issue of SB 152 and the anti-competitive, undemocratic environment it has created in the State of Colorado: 

The statute created by SB 152 needs to go away. While civic and business leaders tout ambitious projects to connect the state with the rest of the world, Colorado is falling behind because of artificial constraints to broadband expansion.

Longmont pioneers saw past all of that and pushed through, even in the face of well-financed opposition. A few other communities are starting to see the advantage of bucking SB 152.

Longmont's Roiniotis says the question he hears almost constantly is, "When am I going to get my gig?"

It is a question the entire state should ask.

We couldn't have said it better ourselves. 

Gigabit Network Expansion Moves Forward in Longmont, Colorado

Construction on Longmont's fiber expansion will begin by August 13th, reports the Times-Call. TCS Communications of Englewood, Colorado recently signed an agreement with Longmont Power & Communications (LPC) to deploy the gigabit network for $20,095,022. Completion is scheduled for 2017.

A July 14th article on the project noted that LPC and TCS will complete construction in six phases. A substantial number of potential subscribers will have access early in the process:

The first phase will be done in south-central Longmont, the area nearest to LPC itself. The work will then proceed into central Longmont by early 2015. At that pace, 11,147 of the utility's 39,061 customers would be able to get fiber service within a year of the start of construction.

Readers will recall that last November the people of Longmont voted to approve a $45.3 million bond issue to bring the network to every premise in the city. Chris spoke with Vince Jordan, one of LPC's champions, in episode #106 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Clearly, LPC is carrying on the customer service priority established by Jordan and the LPC crew:

"We set a high bar with regards to quality of work, customer service and timeline," LPC general manager Tom Roiniotis said in a release Monday evening. "We want to make sure it is done efficiently; we want to make sure it is done right."

LPC provides updates and a map of the project at its website

Early Lessons from Longmont - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 106

Longmont is about to break ground on the citywide FTTH gigabit network but it is already offering services to local businesses and a few neighborhoods that started as pilot projects. Vince Jordan, previously a guest two years ago, is back to update us on their progress.

Until recently, Vince was the Telecom Manager for Longmont Power and Communications in Colorado. He has decided to return to his entrepreneurial roots now that the utility is moving forward with the citywide project. But he has such a great voice and presence that we wanted to bring him back to share some stories.

We talk about Longmont's progress and how they dealt with a miscalculation in costs that forced them to slightly modify prices for local businesses shortly after launching the service. And finally, we discuss the $50/month gigabit service and how Longmont has been able to drive the price so low.

You can read our full coverage of Longmont from this tag.

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 20 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."

2014 Mountain Connect Rural Broadband Conference: Visit Colorado June 8 - 10

If you can make it to Vail in early June, you can enjoy more than the summer mountains. The Mountain Connect Rural Broadband Conference is scheduled for June 8, 9, and 10 at the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa.

From the conference website:

This year our conference theme is “Progress through Education” and it’s our hope that, through our conference topics and speakers, we explore lessons learned and alternative ideas to successfully implement rural broadband initiatives.  For the first time in our MountainConnect history, we are soliciting voices from around the U.S. to broaden our knowledge base and, in some ways, take us down a path we have yet to travel.

Topics include economic development, fiber and wireless communities, telehealth, education, digital media consumption trends, and legislation.

Speakers include a long list of familiar names from private industry, education, and public policy.

Chris will be moderating a panel on community networks on June 9th at 4 p.m. You can check out the full agenda online to plan your visit. 

Seattle, Gigabit Squared, the Challenge of Private Sector Cable Competition

This the second in a series of posts exploring lessons learned from the Seattle Gigabit Squared project, which now appears unlikely to be built. The first post is available here and focuses on the benefits massive cable companies already have as well as the limits of conduit and fiber in spurring new competition.

This post focuses on business challenges an entity like Gigabit Squared would face in building the network it envisioned. I am not representing that this is what Gigabit Squared faced but these issues arise with any new provider in that circumstance. I aim to explain why the private sector has not and generally will not provide competition to companies Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Gigabit Squared planned to deliver voice, television, and Internet access to subscribers. Voice can be a bit of hassle due to the many regulatory requirements and Internet access is comparatively simple. But television, that is a headache. I've been told by some munis that 90% of the problems and difficulties they experience is with television services.

Before you can deliver ESPN, the Family Channel, or Comedy Central, you have to come to agreement with big channel owners like Disney, Viacom, and others. Even massive companies like Comcast have to pay the channel owners more each year despite its over 10 million subscribers, so you can imagine how difficult it can be for a small firm to negotiate these contracts. Some channel owners may only negotiate with a provider after it has a few thousand subscribers - but getting a few thousand subscribers without good content is a challenge.

Many small firms (including most munis) join a buyer cooperative called the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) that has many of the contracts available. But even with that substantial help, building a channel lineup is incredibly difficult and the new competitor will almost certainly be paying more for the same channels as a competitor like Comcast or Time Warner Cable. And some munis, like Lafayette, faced steep barriers in just joining the coop.

FCC Logo

(An aside: if we are going to pretend that competition can work in the telecommunications space, Congress and/or the FCC have to ensure that small providers can access content on reasonable terms or the ever-consolidating big providers will be all but unassailable by any but the likes of Google. Such regulations should include rigorous anti-monopoly enforcement on a variety of levels.)

Assuming a new provider can secure a reasonable channel lineup, it now needs to deliver that to the subscribers and this is more complicated than one might imagine. From satellite dishes to industrial strength encryption to set-top boxes, delivering Hollywood content is incredibly complicated.

When confronted with this challenge for its Kansas City network, Google evaluated all the options and decided the only option was to build its own technology for delivering television signals to subscribers. Google has the some of the best engineers on the planet and even they encountered significant challenges, suggesting that route is ill-advised for new companies. Even if Google were willing to share their approach, it was written for the Google eco-system and would need significant porting to work for other firms.

Several of the recent triple-play municipal FTTH networks used Mediaroom, a technology developed by Microsoft that was recently sold to Ericsson, which has strong connections with AT&T. All of which suggests that delivering television channels is not becoming easier for small, local networks.

From the tremendous challenges of securing television channels to the difficulty of delivering them to subscribers, investors are aware of the mountain a new entrant has to climb before even starting to compete with a massive firm like Comcast.

Longmont Power and Communications Logo

It remains to be seen whether a network delivering only Internet access (or with telephone as well) will succeed today, but most have believed that television is needed to effectively compete for subscribers (and generate enough revenue to pay for the network). Longmont is bucking that wisdom in deploying a gigabit and phone network throughout its footprint north of Denver and many are watching intently to see how it fares (our coverage here).

The main lesson from Part II of our Seattle Gigabit Squared analysis is the difficulty of a small firm competing against a massive cable company like Comcast and the subsequent reluctance of most investors to fund such firms.

This is not to say it is impossible for small entities to compete, especially entities that can handle a distant break-even point or justify its network by the many indirect benefits created by such an investment - including more jobs, lower prices for telecommunications services, and improved educational opportunities to name three (see our recent podcast on this subject). In most cases, the kinds of entities that are willing to include indirect benefits on their balance sheets in addition to cash revenues are nonprofit entities.

We strongly support the right of communities to decide for themselves how to ensure their residents and businesses have the connections they need to thrive in the 21st century. We also recognize that many cities, particularly the larger metro areas, would prefer not to directly compete with some of the most powerful firms on the planet, even if they are also tops among the most hated. Few local governments relish the opportunity to take on such a new challenge and understandably search for firms like Gigabit Squared that can assist them, reduce the risks of building a network, and shield them from charges of being godless communists by think tanks funded by the cable and telephone companies.

However, we are not optimistic that many communities will find success with this public-private-partnership approach. Indeed, with recent news suggesting that Gigabit Squared left at least $50,000 in unpaid bills behind, the risks of going with such a solution may indeed be greater than previously appreciated.

It is for the above reasons that we continue to believe most communities will be best served by building and operating their own networks, though some may choose to do so on an open access basis where multiple ISPs operate on the network.

That is where we will turn in the final segment of this series. Read that post here.