Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for episode 108 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Don Ingle on the past and the future of muni fiber in Boulder, Colorado. Listen to this episode here.
Don Ingle: We literally wanted to take back the control the city had before 2005 and that, we believe, all cities in the state of Colorado should have to chart their own destiny.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
Community leaders in Boulder, Colorado, will be asking the voters this fall to restore local authority to provide municipal telecommunications. Regular listeners to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast will remember our conversations with Colorado's Montrose and Longmont. Both communities voted to reclaim that same right, which was stripped from local government in 2005. Director of Information Technology for Boulder Don Ingle talks with about the city's strategies that have helped them establish a fiber network for government purposes. The community has installed conduit and fiber for several decades, partnering with the university, federal laboratories, and local schools. While the existing fiber assets could be an excellent foundation for future expansion, Don stresses that community leaders have not developed any specific plans. The primary purpose of this initiative is to regain local control.
Here are Chris and Don.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today I'm speaking with the Director of Information Technology for the City of Boulder in Colorado. Don Ingle, welcome to the show.
Don Ingle: Thanks, Chris, very much for inviting me.
Chris: Absolutely. We've been very interested in a lot of things that have been happening in the Boulder region, and so we're thrilled to see some of the recent news stories coming out of Boulder, and excited to learn a little bit more about things that have been going on for a while, in terms of how you've been meeting your -- the needs of the city and some of the major anchors.
Don: You bet.
Chris: Maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about the Boulder area. What's the -- I know it's beautiful, so you could start there, but region like?
Don: It definitely is. We're very proud of Boulder. We're a community of a little over 100,000 population. Very much tied to the incredible natural environment that we have in this area. We're right up against the foothills of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. We have what we call the Flatirons Mountains, which are just spectacular. And as a result of Boulder's history, and all the natural amenities, we have a community that is very outdoors-oriented. We get a lot of national press because of that. We are like a hyper biking community, hiking, what have you.
But we're also a community that attracts extremely talented and bright people. And I think that's motivated by a number of things. We're the home of the University of Colorado, which we're very proud of. And we're also a site for -- we like to think of ourselves, quite honestly, as kind of the Silicon Valley of the Rocky Mountain region. We've got a lot of new tech firms doing incredibly innovative things, that's attracted a wonderful pool of individuals in our community, both commercial, as well as a lot of home-based businesses that are doing a diverse level of things, but particularly in the tech area. As well as having several federal laboratories here. NOAA has a major facility. The University Center for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) is located here. NIST. Other ones as well. And that attracts, again, a very bright populus here to the City of Boulder.
And so the whole issue of broadband connectivity, the ability to help our community leverage its talents and its perspective has been something that's been out there a long time and that we're very excited about.
Chris: A lot of your neighbors have expressed some concerns with the level of connectivity that they have from existing options. Is that something that you share, given the incredible resource base you have, and the people living in Boulder?
Don: It definitely has been. I mean, like most jurisdictions like Boulder, there are very few competitors in this marketplace, and, as a result of that, we not only have concerns in the community that we hear sometimes -- for example, through cable TV franchise renegotiations -- but just in terms of general service levels and costs and speeds and what have you. And we were actually very involved in the Google Fiber initiative back in 2010. And as the city began to develop its RFP response to that, we were just absolutely amazed at the groundswell of public support that came to us. We had the venture capital tech community in Boulder very interested in it. The university citizens who again work for the federal labs or have home businesses, that are just craving that -- at least a gigabit to the home -- and brought up all sorts of really vivid, really concrete examples of why that level of bandwidth is becoming important, especially in our community. We think, particularly among our peer communities in this area, that we're particularly needing that kind of technology to really foster our vision.
Chris: And we're going to come back to some of the ways that you're looking at having a solution to meeting those needs and getting a little more choices out to businesses and residents. But I want to take a step back in time, and look back to decisions that were made, in the '90s even, to build the conduit system, and -- let's start there. What happened there?
Don: You know, it was a great vision, and a great opportunity to leverage Boulder's attractiveness, especially to the private sector. Obviously, in the '90s, a lot of growth in the telecom industry, a lot of growth within Boulder, in terms of the technology needs of the business community. And so we got a lot of attention from telecommunications providers, who wanted to build networks to serve -- private networks within the community. Level 3 Communications, some of Comcast's predecessors, would come to the city and want to run conduit and fiber in city right-of-way. And at that time, you know, federal law was a little bit more conducive to asking for things like in-kind compensations. So the city would ask firms, as part of the in-kind compensation, to provide fiber as part of the city backbone. For example, we serve about -- citywide, we have about 50 fiber-connected city facilities in the community. But we also provide fiber access to Boulder County and Boulder Valley School District and others. And we've been able to build this just through this negotiation process that we've been through.
But we also, in some cases, got lease funding, which we put into a special fund that we also used whenever our public works department had our streets opened for street projects or, particularly, utility projects. We made sure that we laid conduit concurrent with that, using some of the proceeds from those past agreements with the private sector. And what it's allowed us to do is build, basically, a 100-mile fiber network throughout the city. But what's particularly advantageous about this is, we did it in cooperation with the University of Colorado and federal laboratories here in Boulder. And a large portion of our fiber network -- that 100-mile fiber network -- is actually co-owned with the University of Colorado and the federal labs, to interconnect their facilities. And we've actually got an intergovernmental agreement that creates an organization called BRAN (B-R-A-N), the Boulder Regional Administration Network. And the City of Boulder is the governing agency, but that network has some spare capacity in it. And we've always wondered, what could be do in the future that might provide more public benefit for that, as the needs of the community continue to grow.
Chris: When you were talking about working with the existing companies, to get some fiber in the ground -- when they were putting fiber in the ground -- a lot of times, that would be conditioned, as I recall in other communities, where you would have certain things you COULD do with it, such as serving schools, but there were maybe things you could NOT do, which would be serving businesses and that sort of thing. So, do you have a mixture of assets that have different abilities to be used for different things? Or is everything pretty much open for whatever you want to do with it? If you regain authority, under Colorado law, to use it?
Don: Well, it's a disclaimer that this precedes me, in terms of, you know, having started a decade and a half ago. Some great vision went into developing these agreements. And, in truth, there was no limitation in terms of us using any of the assets provided to us in ways that would compete with the private sector. So when we negotiate a conduit and fiber run, say, we're under the ownership of the city. And as a result of that, we've been able to, again, leverage this ability to expand the network, concurrent with CU and the federal labs, and really use it in a way that really doesn't encumber us. I think it's also very noteworthy that -- it's been about eight years ago, I believe, Boulder Valley School District floated a bond issue to create a really immense -- two fiber optic rings around our county, to serve the diverse school district's telecommunications needs around here. And we partnered with the school district, as well, to exchange assets. We've been in a really dynamic environment here, in terms of, again, being able to leverage those private partnerships, and with other governmental agencies, to build this network that's really pretty unencumbered.
Chris: That's really great to hear, because some communities find that they were able to maybe lower the price or they would take some sort of deal that would limit their ability to use the network in the future. And I think, a lot of times, they didn't realize just how damaging that would be. So, I'm glad you were able to step into this situation where your predecessors were really maximizing your future freedom to build the network as you saw fit.
Chris: So, one of the interesting things happening in Boulder, from my organization's -- the Institute for Local Self-Reliance -- our perspective is that the city is in the midst of a debate over whether or not it wants to municipalize the power system, which is currently owned by Excel Energy. And it's interesting, because, a lot of times, the communities that have built their own fiber networks also have a municipal electricity system. So, I'm just curious if any of these discussions about how to use the municipal fiber network have overlapped with the discussions of taking over the Excel Energy system, and investing in affordable -- renewable energy, and that sort of thing.
Don: That's a great question. And it might be surprising that the two really haven't crossed. As I mentioned, we've been talking about this especially since 2010, and the Google Fiber initiative came to the fore. And, again, because kind of the grass-roots way that developed, and the expressed interests from the community, we've actually even, since then, been trying to work at a legislative level, through our lobbying efforts with our state legislature, to get changes put in place to state law which limit our ability, basically, in our community in the state of Colorado, to do much of anything that competes with the private sector, in terms of the use of city communications asset. It was passed in 2005, I think.
Chris: We often refer to it as the Quest Law, as I understand many in Colorado do.
Don: Yes. There was a lot of industry backing of that. Luckily, it does include a provision for political entities in the state of Colorado to opt out for a public vote. And we made a yeoman's effort, especially this year, to try to get interest from the state legislature in amending that, at least allowing, for example, public-private partnerships, which it doesn't even allow. And we were unsuccessful in that. We, honestly, have looked at our community's interest in this. And we have no definitive plans -- I want to emphasize that right now. There's no arrangement with a private-sector company. There's no plan to create a utility -- a broadband utility. We literally wanted to take back the control the city had before 2005 and, we believe, all cities in the state of Colorado should have, to chart their own destiny. And so, as we move forward and talk about visioning and what have you, we really wanted, for lack of a better term, this legislative monkey off our back. And so, luckily, the City Council has approved, on first reading, an ordinance to put a ballot measure to the citizens in November to completely exempt us from that. We'd like the world, basically, to know that, you know, Boulder has a vision. We're interested, maybe, in future public-private partnerships, and for them to know that we took this extra effort to affirm our community's vision by getting ourselves exempted from this law. We think that that's going to open up great opportunities in the future. If there's ways that the streams of municipalization can cross, in terms of how that might develop in the future, that would be great. But it's really not a result of municipalization, that we're taking this step at this point.
Chris: That certainly makes sense. One of the things we've found, in working with communities, is that it takes a lot of years of planning, of studying the market, to really figure out a good plan for moving forward -- for building a broadband utility-type broadband service. And you don't want to invest that kind of effort in research if you ultimately find you don't have the authority. So, you know, people shouldn't be surprised to hear that you want to get the authority before you develop the plan. Because you should have the authority that most cities in the country have, which is to figure this out for yourself.
Don: You bet. That's a great summary of our strategy.
Chris: So, one of the things that I've been interested in seeing is that -- there's been a discussion at the -- within the City Council as to whether or not the wording of the ballot measure should have -- basically, limit it to only building a network with partners, or whether the city should also reserve the right to build it itself. And it sounds like there's not a resolution yet but a lot of people are really leaning toward maximum options for the future.
Don: In our belief that, you know, Council should have all options available to them, we drafted two versions of ballot measures. One is a complete exemption, which is very similar to what a neighboring community very close to us, the City of Longmont, recently did. And then, a more watered-down version, if you will, like you described, where it would at least provide us the ability to have a public-private partnership. The City of Centennial, Colorado, a suburban Denver community, took that approach and were successful with that. We thought that Council would affirm both sets of language and then make the final decision when they make their second reading, which will happen in mid-August. But, in fact, given their belief, and also the feedback -- the strong feedback -- they've gotten from the community, they made the decision, a couple of weeks ago, that they will go solely with the language that pursues the complete exemption. And so that's the basis upon which we're proceeding now.
Chris: Is there anything else we should know about what's happening in Boulder right now?
Don: You know, you mentioned municipalization, which has obviously been a big issue for us. You know, our community continues to grow. And economic vitality here is fantastic. The community, again, even in the short period of time that we've had this concept of a ballot initiative out there is just -- it's really come out of the woodwork in terms of support for this. We're very excited about what this might bode for us, not only in terms of the outcome of the ballot initiative. Also in terms of what this might develop in terms of broadening that vision of what we might do post-November.
Chris: Thank you for coming on the show.
Don: You bet. Thanks for the time.
Lisa: We have more stories on Colorado communities, including Longmont, Montrose, Centennial, and, of course, Boulder, at muninetworks.org.
Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This show was published on July 22, 2014.
Thank you, again, to Waylon Thornton for the music. The song is "Bronco Romp," licensed using Creative Commons. Have a great day.