Broadband at the Ballot Box

Broadband was on the ballot as voters went to the polls for Election Day in many areas. Here’s a quick run-down of what happened.

Colorado

The Colorado state law (SB-152) that bans local governments in the Centennial State from establishing municipal broadband service suffered another defeat at the ballot box. Since the law was passed nearly two decades ago, more than 150 Colorado communities have opted out. That number continues to grow and we can now add the town of Windsor to the list of municipalities in the state who have voted to restore local Internet choice.

At the polls yesterday, 77 percent of Windsor voters said yes to Ballot Question 3A, which asked “shall the Town of Windsor, without increasing taxes by this measure, be authorized to provide high-speed Internet services (advanced services), telecommunications services, and/or cable television services … either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners?”

The passage of the ballot question allows Windsor to opt out of SB-152, although as reported by The Colorodoan, town leaders do not intend to establish a new municipal broadband utility as Loveland, Fort Collins, and Estes Park have done in the Front Range region of the state. Rather, Windsor will “pursue a public-private partnership with Highline Internet to bring high-speed Internet and phone service to the town … Highline would build, own and operate the network, though Windsor has the option of contributing money or assets (with voter approval) in exchange for a share of revenue.” Highline Internet is a company operating in multiple states that we have not often come across before.

In Milliken, just 16 miles east of Loveland, voters there overwhelmingly approved opting out of SB-152. Unofficial results indicate about 80 percent of Milliken voters said yes to Ballot Question 2A, which authorizes the town to move forward to explore providing municipal broadband service.

According to the Loveland Reporter-Herald, Milliken Town Administrator Cheryl Powell said the town wanted to opt out of SB-152 to position itself to “provide our residents with more variety. We currently are exploring our options but no decisions have been made as to a provider or if services would be offered through the town.” Powell also told the Reporter-Herald that town officials would “know more in the next month or two, but we initially set out to see if residents were supportive.”

The same question was on the ballot for voters in Mesa County, and the results were similar. Mesa County voters passed Question 1B, which, according to The Daily Sentinel, “makes the county one of the last on the Western Slope to do so. Voters in Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade, along with several municipalities in Garfield, Delta and Montrose counties (including the counties themselves), have similarly opted out of the law.”

The Daily Sentinel goes on to report that the county will now likely seek state or federal grants to help pay for middle-mile fiber infrastructure and possibly pursue a public-private partnership to bring better broadband to the county.

What Mesa County officials may have in mind is capitalizing on Project THOR’s middle-mile infrastructure which passes through Grand Junction in the center of Mesa County.

Iowa

While in Fort Dodge, city officials are moving forward with plans to build a city-wide municipal fiber network, in the city of Harlan on Election Day voters passed a ballot question that gives Harlan Municipal Utilities (HMU) the authority – though not the obligation – to sell the city's municipal telecom utility.

Harlan was an early municipal network and apparently the utility board has lost the faith of voters. The HMU Board of Trustees saw the writing on the wall and although they have no plan to sell the telecom utility, according to HarlanOnline.com, HMU’s legal counsel “has been diligent in completing all necessary steps as required by law, such as obtaining numerous appraisals, determining fair market value, consideration of alternatives to sale, and conducting a full inventory, financial statements and rate schedules.”

Meanwhile, in the city of Alta, a similar effort was underway where voters were asked if they wanted to dissolve the city’s independent utility board. But, as Broadband Bytes reported, “the vote wasn't even close. Only 7.1 percent of the voters approved of the measure with 92.9 percent voting no. Alta's municipal electric, water, and broadband utilities will remain under the governance of the Alta Municipal Utilities board of trustees.”

Maine

In Bangor, municipal broadband was a centerpiece of City Councilor Gretchen Schaefer’s re-election campaign.

At a candidates’ forum hosted by the Bangor League of Women Voters last month, Schaefer said that rising Internet service prices and a desire to attract more businesses to Bangor highlighted the need for the city to consider building a “robust municipal broadband network” as a number of small towns in Maine are doing.

“There’s no reason why Bangor can’t do it,” Schaefer said. “It’s only been proven more in the last year how important Internet is for our families, for our businesses, for our schools, and I look forward to when we can offer that.”

It was a message that resonated with voters as Schaefer won her bid for re-election.

But in China (not the country, but a small town in central Maine), a ballot question that asked if the town should spend $6.4 million to build a municipal broadband network, voters rejected the proposal with 547 saying ‘Yes’ and 876 casting a ‘No’ ballot.

Local broadband advocates are still processing the results and so it’s unclear what the next steps will be for the town’s Broadband Committee.

Meanwhile, voters in another town in central Maine rejected a proposal to build a $4.5 million municipal broadband network in the town of Hampden that aimed to bring high-speed Internet service to the underserved parts of town.

When results were tallied, 1,407 Hampden voters said no to the town issuing bonds to pay for network construction with 981 voting in favor of the bond issue.

The results of the election were no doubt influenced by the big incumbent providers who wanted to kill any inkling of competition. As reported by the Bangor Daily News, “after the council decided to put the question about issuing bonds to build a town-owned broadband network to voters, two companies — TDS Telecom and [Charter] Spectrum — announced that they would expand coverage to serve the entire community.”

Hampden Town Manager Paula Scott tried to put a good spin on it by making the case that merely placing the bond issue on the ballot prompted the private providers to announce they would expand their networks in town. “We consider this still a win for the town and would likely not embark on our own municipal model if these companies are going to finally service the unserved and underserved areas of town,” she said.

In addition to TDS Telecom and Spectrum promising to expand in Hampden, a day before the election the Bangor Daily News also reported that out-of-town forces had been working to kill the proposal:

An arm of a Portland-based conservative think tank is taking a leap into local politics and opposing Hampden’s proposed $4.5 million broadband bond issue on Tuesday’s ballot.

Maine Civic Action, a sister organization to the Maine Policy Institute, is paying for the campaign urging a ‘no’ vote, which is taking place mostly on Facebook. The group has also sent out mailers and done canvassing in town, according to spokesperson Jacob Posik.

The Town Council has not launched a counter campaign in support of the proposal.

This is an important reminder for communities pursuing municipal broadband projects elsewhere that robust public education campaigns are essential. These sorts of industry-led anti-competition opposition campaigns that unfolded in Hampden are common.

It’s also a potential harbinger of what state and local broadband advocates may run up against as they work to expand broadband access across the state with an emphasis on supporting community-owned networks. As Bangor Daily News reporter Judy Harrison noted: “The advocacy group’s venture into the campaign surrounding Hampden’s referendum question could be a sign of what’s to come as Gov. Janet Mills’ administration devotes millions of dollars to expanding broadband service in the state, with municipally owned broadband networks likely to figure into that expansion.”

Massachusetts

In Northampton, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that gives the city the green-light to create a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), which is a legal entity that cities and towns in the Commonwealth can use to create a telecommunication utility.

With nearly all the ballots counted, 7,426 voters (91 percent of those who cast ballots) said ‘Yes’ to establishing a Northampton MLP.

The effort there is being spearheaded by a citizen-led coalition known as the Northampton Community Network. According to the group’s website, now that voters approved the creation of an MLP, “our coalition is assessing where to go from here. There are now no known legal impediments to creating a municipal network. The next step is for Design Nine (which has a contract with the City) to complete a feasibility study, which is already underway. This study will assess the costs to construct and maintain a municipal network. The study is expected to be used by the new mayor and new city council to decide if a municipal network should be created.”

New Jersey

Samip "Sam" Joshi was elected to be Edison Township’s next Mayor. At the heart of his campaign was a pledge to establish municipal broadband service in the fifth largest municipality (pop. 100,693) in the state.

In his personal statement on why he was running for office published by CentralJersey.com, Joshi wrote:

Edison is where I was born and raised. I am running for mayor to make a positive impact in our community. Using my experience and education, as mayor, I will form a new township Master Plan, prioritize smart growth investments, such as launching municipal broadband for faster and cheaper Internet that would generate revenue to offset high taxes, increase the value of our properties, cut municipal waste, and build a community that we are proud of now and for the future.

Now Mayor-Elect Joshi will have the opportunity to make good on that promise.

 

Header image CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), Public Domain Dedication

Inline image of Pulse Network build in Loveland, Colorado courtesy of Loveland Pulse

Inline image of downtown Harlan, Iowa, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Inline image of Bangor, Maine High Street courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Inline image of Amboy Avenue in Edison, NJ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), Public Domain Dedication