Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript to the episode 10 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Vince Jordan on the municipal fiber network now called NextLight in Longmont, Colorado. Listen to this episode here.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Episode 10. I'm Christopher Mitchell, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and the Editor of muninetworks.org . Today, we're talking with Vince Jordan, Telecom Manager at Longmont Power and Communications in Colorado. Longmont has gone head-to-head with Comcast twice in city referenda. Having succeeded in their second effort, the city is now expanding its fiber optic ring to connect businesses and residents. This is a community-driven process that is taking public input. At present, the network will not issue any debt to pay for their expansion. Learn how in this interview, starting now.
Christopher: Thank you, Vincent Jordan, for joining us. You're the Telecom Manager for the City of Longmont. Can you tell us a little bit about Longmont?
Vince Jordan: Sure. So, Longmont is a town that's just about 28 miles north of Denver. We're right on the Front Range. So I'm looking at the Rocky Mountains right now, about 20 minutes away. The town is about 29 square miles. We have 36,000 sites that -- I work for Longmont Power and Communications. And so we have 36,000 sites that we provide power to. That's a mixture of homes and businesses. Population's around 85,000.
Christopher: Terrific. And now, Longmont, for a long time, has had a fiber ring to help with its power distribution, right? Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the fiber?
Vince: You bet. In 1999, Platte River Power Authority funded the building of a fiber optic network to support the substations here in Longmont, that Longmont Power and Communications utilizes to provide power to the community. As that fiber was being put in place, the then-mayor, Leona Stoecker, and a number of other individuals involved in that project, said, well, we should put more in, because who knows what we might want to do with it. We might want to provide, you know, connectivity to the businesses and the residents at some time in the future. So they really overbuilt it, to the tune of -- you know, there's about 4300 miles of fiber optic cable laid in Longmont. That's comprised in an 18-mile loop. And then 55 miles of cable plant. So those are all the laterals coming off of the loop. So, even back then, they were thinking about a lot of extra capacity and what they might do with it. So -- yeah, that was in the late '90s, early 2000 is when that was completed.
Christopher: Great! And that's the sort of situation where the cost of "overbuilding" it, as you said, really doesn't impact the final cost of the project. Right?
Vince: No. It didn't. You know, it was a question of, are you going to put in, you know, 24 fibers, 48 fibers, 144? And they -- you know, the cost was, you know, negligible. The increments were negligible, to put more in. And so they did a, you know, 144 -- 12 buffer tubes worth of fiber, which Platte River Power Authority and LPC only used one. And so that left us with a good deal of extra capacity.
Christopher: Right. So, you have extra capacity. And then, in 2005, you suddenly have a law that is telling you you can't use that extra capacity. Maybe you can walk us through that.
Vince: Yeah. So, yeah, in 2005, the incumbent service providers in Colorado -- namely, Qwest, CenturyLink -- that was before they combined -- Comcast, lobbied the state to put a -- you know, what I consider to be an absolutely ridiculous law in place that barred municipalities from providing broadband services, directly or with a partner, to businesses or residents in their community. And so we had a right that existed, that we had prior to 2005, taken away from us. We already had an asset in place. We were all ready connecting the local hospital, city services, county services onto the fiber network. And that law basically shut down our ability to utilize an asset that we were already utilizing -- we were already had in place.
Christopher: OK. So, you have a barrier now. And, fortunately, it wasn't quite as strong as we see in Nebraska or Texas. There's a way for you to restore your authority, right? So you decided -- the community decided to have a referendum, right?
Vince: Yes. There's -- so, there was a provision -- the League of Municipalities -- Colorado League of Municipalities -- had them put a provision in the law, that a local municipality could have a referendum and a ballot issue, and could overturn that law, by a 51 percent of the vote. And so, in 2009, we -- and I was a private citizen at the time, here in Longmont. But I was working with a number of the city managers. And we had a discussion and decided we would go ahead and try and get this thing overturned. And so we did put a referendum up. And we put a ballot issue in place, to have the community vote to give us back our right to utilize the asset.
Christopher: Right. And so, how did that go?
Vince: [chuckles] Well, we -- really ...
Christopher: This is -- you know, if I could actually just say -- this is where I learned about Longmont, at this point. I remember learning about this in 2009.
Vince: Yeah. We severely underestimated what the incumbents would do to keep us from having a successful ballot issue. they spent over $245,000 -- it was primarily Comcast's -- spent over $245,000 fighting that ballot issue, with radio ads, television ads, newspaper ads, filling our mailboxes with junk -- you know, signs everywhere, people going door-to-door, scaring people off, basically, and convincing them that the city was going to raise their taxes and spend all their money, and this was going to be a terrible mess.
Christopher: Right. They actually said that you were going to fire firemen, I believe. Right? Public safety ...
Vince: Right. And police departments. Uh huh. Yeah. Exactly. That was part of their campaign. I mean, it was an amazing thing. We were not ready for it, obviously. And, by law, once the issue was on the ballot -- and the referendum was in place -- the city could not speak out against the things that Comcast was saying. So, myself, as a private citizen, I went to every debate. And I went to homeowners associations, and everybody I could possibly talk to, and try and explain what was really going on. But it was overwhelming. I mean, in Longmont's, you know, over 100 year history, it was the most money ever spent on a single election or a single issue. It was amazing. So, we lost by 12 percent. We just got run over by a steamroller, basically.
Christopher: Right. Well, it's incredibly hard to go up against that. But nonetheless, two years later, you decided to try again.
Vince: Yes. So, this is one of the things that I share with the -- you know, the municipalities in Colorado that I'm speaking with today, is -- we've discovered, after 2009, that we had to educate our community on what we already had, what the value of what we had was, what the city could do with it, what it would mean for economic development, education, you know, lifestyle. And luckily, at that time, the whole Google Fiber thing was starting off. And it had a lot of visibility. Longmont actually ran two campaigns to get on Google's radar map. And, in fact, we were one of the finalists for Google Fiber. I think SB 152 scared 'em off -- which it would scare anybody off.
Christopher: And that was a 2005 law, right?
Vince: Yeah. The 2005 law.
Vince: That's correct. And so -- But it was great for us, because we did a lot of things that helped us educate our community about the value of fiber optic. And Google was helping us, too. Which is -- you know, the whole national presence, and the whole national event that, you know, it turned out to be. That helped us a great deal. And so, when I talk to municipalities today, I tell them, you've got to spend a year educating your community about what this means. And one of the things that we did, we did a videoconference. We went to the schools and said, make a three-minute video about why broadband services and the fiber network that Longmont has is valuable to this community. And we had kindergartners standing up there talking about fiber optics. It was awesome. It was just great. And that helped a lot to get the word out to the community. So, yeah, in 2011, we went forward again.
Christopher: Right. And this time, Comcast again broke the record, right?
Vince: Oh, yeah. They broke their own record. They spent over $400,000 this time.
Christopher: Wow! That was the final tally. I thought it was three. That's incredible.
Vince: Yeah. It was amazing. And I gotta tell you, Chris, I mean, I'm -- you know, the night of the election, I'm sitting there, and I know we've done the best job possible, and we've talked to people. And we even had another local community group put up a website, and it was really out there trying to make it happen. But this thing -- the onslaught of misinformation that they were able to throw at this community with 400 grand -- that night of the vote, man, I'm just shaking my head, going, how the heck do you possibly beat something like this? I mean, I did not believe that we were going to win it.
Christopher: Um hum.
Vince: But we did! 21 percent.
Christopher: Well, it was tremendous. And I think -- I think a part of that -- one of the best things I saw was, someone in favor publicizing all the ways in which Comcast was spending this money. And much of it wasn't even benefitting Longmont. They were hiring these PR people out of Denver.
Vince: Out of Denver. And California.
Christopher: Yeah. It's just no local support for the Comcast position. And the fact that you were able to expose that, I think, was tremendous.
Vince: Yeah. It was -- you know -- and it was really interesting, too. One of our long-time editors here, for the newspaper, Times Call, wrote an article, and he said, in this entire history, he had never seen an issue as completely bipartisan as this one was. And I can validate that, because I spoke to the Democratic groups, and I spoke to the Republican groups, and I spoke to the Tea Party, and the Independents, and, you know, anybody else that would listen. And every single one of them came out in support of what we were doing. It was really an amazing community effort that it became.
Christopher: So, let me ask you this. How do you take a message into the Tea Party group without fear of being run out of town for encouraging socialism?
Vince: Right. Yeah. Big Government, and all of that sort of thing?
Vince: You know, the way we positioned it, so it -- I'll tell you how I positioned it, and it worked great with them. Give us back our rights. The state government took away rights that we had had, up until l2005. And all we were doing was going and getting back the rights we originally had. And that resonated with them.
Christopher: Right. That makes a lot of sense. That's ultimately our focus as well. We don't ever want to force a community to build the network if they're not interested.
Christopher: We want the decision to be made locally.
Vince: Absolutely. You know. And for some communities, it makes sense, and for other communities, it won't make sense.
Christopher: Um hum.
Vince: It makes a lot of sense for Longmont because, you know, the power company has been here for 100 years, delivering power. And it's the same company that's doing the broadband services. And we're utilizing resources that were utilized for power. You know, so it makes a lot of sense for Longmont. Other communities, it won't. And I actually spoke with some folks in the state government last week -- Senator Bennett's office and Senator Udall's office. And I said, you know, this isn't about the federal government mandating that the states do anything. It's about the federal government, or state government, saying, you are free to make the decision. Do what's right for your community.
Christopher: Right. That's exactly it. Let's turn back to that first referendum, if we can, with the benefit of hindsight. And let me ask you, you said you need to spend a year educating the public on these issues. And I think that's absolutely correct. My question is, how do you do that without the controversy of the referendum?
Christopher: Could you have spent that year, if you hadn't lost the referendum already?
Vince: Yeah. If we hadn't lost it, and the Google Fiber thing wasn't going on, it would have been much more challenging. But I -- you know, in working with the communities, and talking to them, I'm telling them, you know, the way I see doing this -- I mean, it's really about -- there's two elements of this that you could really focus on, and then target educating the community. And that's economic development and education. And if you focus on those two things, it's real easy to go into the schools, and do presentations there, and explain to people, you know, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, in terms of broadband, in terms of access to higher-level educational on-line courses, HD content, that sort of thing. On the economic development side, it's real straight forward to talk to the business community. And there's plenty of venues to do that. Chamber of Commerce. Different, you know, school district meetings. HOAs. Reaching out to the HOAs, and asking them to come and present to them about what the value, you know, the additional value to their homes would be, with this kind of connectivity available to 'em. So I could really -- you know, if somebody wanted to, I could probably sit down and map out a systematic way, and all the different organizations that you would go to, to educate 'em. And I think the biggest proponent you want to get are the students. 'Cause the students get it. I gotta tell you, man -- you know, elementary, middle school, and high school -- they understand the value of higher-speed broadband. Because when they don't have it, their world doesn't work. They are the Connected Generation. They get the message. They get the value of this thing. And if you can get that to them, they can get it to their parents.
Christopher: Yup. I absolutely believe it. I actually just had an issue here where I was having trouble accessing some documents online. And at the same time, my phone was giving me some problems. And I felt totally unable to communicate with the outside world.
Vince: [laughs] I know, it's frightening now, isn't it.
Christopher: Yeah. Um, let me ask you, then -- you've gone through this -- I think you call it a monster battle.
Vince: Um hum.
Christopher: And what do you do now? What's the plan?
Vince: Oh, we are shakin' and bakin', as they say. We are characterizing the fiber we've got right now, to see what kind of condition it's in, because it's been there for 10 years. And I'm happy to report that most of the unused fiber is in great shape and able to carry the signals that we want to push across it. We are putting -- we've got a public information process here in town, over the last month, to meet with the businesses and the residents, to talk with them about what we're looking at, in terms of rates, and the types of services that we're looking to provide. Taking their questions, and answering those. We're actually, right now -- today, as a matter of fact -- putting equipment in place that's going to let us light up the fiber. And my personal goal is, as I've stated publicly a number of times, is to have the first fiber-to-the-business and fiber-to-the-home customers on by the one-year anniversary of the referendum passing. So that would be November 2nd, this year.
Christopher: Ah. That's quite the timetable. What's the larger plan, in terms of how many people will have access?
Vince: Well, yeah, initially, you know, what we've got -- the situation we have right now -- Because our telecom fund is a separate enterprise fund. So there's no cross-subsidization going on here. So the telecom has got to live and die on its own funds. So, right now, what we're able to do is, do this on a revenue-generation basis. As we collect more revenue. We're already a profitable fund, because we've been leasing dark fiber since before 2005, and those lease were able to stand even with SB 152 going in place -- they were grandfathered in.
Christopher: Um hum.
Vince: So the telecom fund is already a profitable fund. So, the more we sell, the more we'll be able to build. Right now, today, I have 1,280 of the 3,600 businesses in Longmont within 500 feet or less of the fiber. So getting it built out to them is relatively inexpensive, and will be made up very quickly in the savings that they would get from our rates, over the rates that they have to pay today. As that money comes in, we'll build more. In terms of residential, we've got -- about 35 percent of our fiber is aerial. And so anything that's passing down the alleyways, through the back yards of the homes that are connected to power, in an aerial fashion, and the fiber's there, [it's] very straight forward to get those folks on. We also have about 1,280 homes that already have conduit through their back yards. And so pulling fiber through there, and then doing the, you know, last 50 feet, 75 feet, to the house is also relatively inexpensive. So that's how we're going to start. We're looking at -- because we're the power company, we're looking at some grants around smart grid and AMI and those sorts of things, that would support building fiber out for that particular use. And then, of course, we would have it to the homes, and be able to add the broadband services as well. So we're exploring those things as well. But, right now, what this is is a build-as-we-sell-and-deploy strategy. And so, we're just going to keep adding businesses and residents, and that money comes in, we're going to build more. Unless we can figure out a way to get, you know, a big chunk of money in here to build the whole city all at one time.
Christopher: And will you be offering services? And which ones?
Vince: Well, yeah, that's a -- yes, we will. And that's an interesting question. So, with our public information process, we've been running a survey now for a couple of months as well. You know, we've talked to folks about the fact that there's a number of different things we could do. We don't necessarily want to build a "head-end," and do this big video play. Because what we discovered, from talking with a number of communities who have done this is, that is the most expensive element of providing service and has the least profit margin in it.
Christopher: Right. And, just for people who aren't familiar, the head-end is where the "cable" signals get processed for television.
Vince: Right. Yup. Exactly. So, what we've been doing is, we've been going out and looking at all the different ways you can get voice services today. So, all the different VoIP providers, like Vonage, and magicJack, and -- you know, I can list about twenty right now. And then all of the over-the-top services and technology that are out there, like Roku and Hulu and Netflix and all those. And what we've been doing is learning all about those things ourselves and then putting them up on our website so that our customers that will have only one place to go to find the variety of services that they can just go get, with an inexpensive broadband connection. And we've been talking to the community about this now for a couple of months. And, I mean, that's really being well-accepted, what we're talking about. I can go out and create, you know, a relationship with a VoIP provider. And, in fact, I even know of a couple of different video providers out there -- one in Colorado Springs and one just to the north of us, in Mead, Colorado, where we could give them access to our pipe and let them provide service over it as well. Or we white-label it as Longmont. Because we WILL be the ISP. And we will be the service provider.
Christopher: Um hum.
Vince: And get services to the community that way. So, we're exploring all these different options. But, right now, what we're talking about is getting you the very best, you know, inexpensive connection -- 50 megabytes, 100 megabytes to your house -- you know, for what you're paying for 5
today. xx:xx Christopher:
Right. xx:xx Vince: You know, from Comcast, right? And then showing you all the different ways you could get your voice, you could get your video, and put that power in your hands, and let you go and do that. And we're going to see how that is accepted by the community. If they want us to provide the voice and the video, then we'll figure out ways to do that.
Christopher: Well, it's great to see the community input. It certainly is a different picture than that that was painted with $400,000 of Comcast money. I think that was the -- was it the "No Blank Check" -- because you were ...
Christopher: ... because you were meaning to go out and bond for all kinds of money?
Vince: Yup. Raise taxes. Bonds. All this -- yeah, you remember that campaign ...
Christopher: Yeah, well it sounds like ...
Vince: ... that's exactly what they were telling them.
Christopher: It sounds like they didn't -- they had a broken crystal ball, I guess.
Christopher: Well, it's terrific. And then, can you talk at all about interest in other communities? Are they -- nearby -- looking at you and trying to figure out what they can do to capitalize on some of your lessons?
Vince: Oh, yeah. Well, even beyond that, we're -- our school district is utilizing our fiber, and has been for years now. They were grandfathered into this thing. So we have a gigabit connection between the schools in Longmont. That connection was extended to surrounding communities by a wholesale service provider that we actually work with as well. And so we actually touch Lyons, Mead, Erie, and Niwot. Those communities are talking to us now, and saying, well, OK, we already go back to Longmont on your fiber. When you're able to light this up and provide these services, what might we do, you know, extending to these communities. So, we're having those kinds of conversations. And then I'm also working with the surrounding communities about how they would go about, you know, overturning SB 152, because before they can do anything, they have to do that.
Christopher: Um hum.
Vince: That's where I've been telling them -- you know, there was like three of them that were going to put it on the ballot this year. And I said, you know, don't bother, 'cause you're just going to waste time and money. You need to spend a year educating your community about what it means, what you might do, how you might go about doing it. So when you put it on the ballot issue, and that onslaught comes after you, you know, you might have a chance of passing it. The other thing I've been encouraging them to do -- and I don't really want to give my strategy away here, but -- I'd love to see a number of them all do it in the same year ...
Christopher: Um hum.
Vince: ... 'cause then the other guys have got to figure out which battles they're going to fight and which ones they're going to pass on.
Christopher: Iowa had a number of referendums one year. And a lot of the communities passed it. And, you know, some took action on it and some didn't. But the important thing is is they can make up their own minds now.
Vince: Yeah, that's great. I mean, and that's how, you know, I think that's all any community is asking for. That's all they need. And then they can go through the process of doing their homework and looking at what makes sense.
Christopher: Right. Well, is there anything else we should know about Longmont?
Vince: Well, you're going to have very-high-speed, low-cost broadband available here by the end of this year. Starting next year, it's a beautiful community. We have a lot of fun here. You know, we've got the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Plains to the east. I think we're going to be growing like crazy now, especially on the economic development side, with businesses, because of what we're going to be able to provide them. So, come out and take a look. Who knows? You might fall in love.
Christopher: Ha! Sounds good. I think -- it's a dangerous proposition. Because I've been through that area, and it really is beautiful.
Vince: Yeah, it is. And now, I can get you 100 megabits for your house.
Christopher: Right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. We've really appreciated having you.
Vince: Well, thank you, Chris, for having me. I enjoyed it. And thank you, too, so much for the work that you do. We've utilized it a lot over the years. And will continue to do so. I really appreciate what you guys do.
Christopher: Thank you.
Christopher: That was Vince Jordan, Telecom Manager at Longmont Power and Communications. I'm sure he'll be back on this show in the future, as the project progresses. To learn more, visit our show page on muninetwroks.org , where we have links to some of the materials discussed today. If you have any questions or comments, please tell us directly. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets . This show was released on August 28th, 2012. Thanks to my colleague, Lisa Gonzalez, for putting this show together. And Fit and the Conniptions for music, using Creative Commons. The song is called, "Storm's over."