As voters went to the polls to cast ballots in the 2020 Presidential election, in two major metropolitan areas residents overwhelmingly approved ballot questions to move forward on exploring how to expand broadband access in their respective cities.
In Chicago, nearly 90% of those who cast ballots said “yes” to a non-binding referendum question that asked: “Should the city of Chicago act to ensure that all the city's community areas have access to broadband Internet?" With 2,034 of 2,069 precincts counted, 772,235 voters out of 862,140 cast their ballots in favor of that question.
That vote came on the heels of the roll out of “Chicago Connected,” a new initiative to bring high-speed Internet service to 100,000 households that do not have reliable access within the nation’s third-largest school district.
Meanwhile, in Denver 219,435 voters, or 83.5% of the city’s electorate, cast ballots in favor of question 2H, which allows the city to opt out of the state’s 2005 state law referred to as SB 152. That law prevents municipalities from building or partnering for broadband networks. Approval of the ballot initiative also grants the city “the authority but not [the] obligation to provide high-speed Internet access." Two other Colorado communities – Berthoud and Englewood – also voted in favor of similar ballot questions, asking voters if they want to opt out of SB 152. In Berthoud, 77.3% of voters cast ballots in support of the question. In Englewood, the opt-out question passed with 79.4% of voters in favor, which will allow the city to provide Wi-Fi service in city facilities.
In the 15 years since SB 152 was passed 140 Colorado communities have opted out with resultant networks like Longmont’s NextLight as an example of a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) success story.
Disappointment in Kaysville and Lucas
In other cities with broadband initiatives on the ballot, the results were not as favorable. In Kaysville, Utah, voters were asked if they approved of the city moving forward on a $26 million, 30-year bond to build a municipally owned fiber optic network called Kaysville Fiber. As of Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 4, the nay votes had a slight edge. With just over 14,000 cast, 7,185 Kaysville voters, or 51% of the counted ballots, were in opposition to the Kaysville Fiber project; with 7,014, or 49% percent of counted ballots, in favor. It was unclear how many remaining ballots were left to be tallied but proponents were holding out hope the project will ultimately pass when Davis County election officials finish the vote count by Friday.
The Utah Taxpayer's Association led the opposition against in Kaysville, sending out mailers and distributing yard signs urging residents to vote no on the measure. The group also hired a Comcast lobbying firm which had a consulting agreement with former Kaysville Mayor Steve Hiatt. Hiatt published an opinion piece in the Deseret News which called the project "overly risky and costly."
In Lucas, Texas, where voters took up Proposition B, they were asked for approval on the issuance of $19.1 million worth of bonds to fund “a fiber optic cable utility system to provide broadband Internet service.” The proposition was soundly defeated. With all ballots counted, 29,063, or 61% of Lucas voters, voted in opposition.
Collectively, the significance of these votes shows that residents in two major cities — served by large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — are overwhelmingly in support of improved connectivity in a general sense. Notably, both Chicago and Denver are considered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to be well served by existing broadband options. High prices, poor customer service, and inadequate service quality are all contributing factors to a growing sense of frustration with cable and telephone monopolies, even in major metropolitan areas. In Kaysville and Lucas, where specific ballot measures look to have been defeated, we might expect to see attitudes change over the next few years as the importance of fast, reliable, affordable Internet access becomes more clear.