Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 211

This is Episode 211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Fort Collins, Colorado, has opted out of a state law preventing community from building networks. Mayor Troxell joins the show to talk about what's happening now. Listen to this episode here.

 

Mayor Troxell: It's incumbent upon us to not only do the heads down, try and do things that we tend to do on a biweekly basis, but we also have to be lifting our head up and looking at the horizon.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Welcome, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins, Colorado, joins Chris for this week's interview. In 2015, voters in Fort Collins passed a measure to opt out of Colorado's SB152. As you'll find out in the interview, local voters sent a strong message that they wanted to reclaim local authority. In this interview, Mayor Troxell gives us his perspective as an elected official and community leader on why a community like Fort Collins would invest in internet infrastructure. He also provides more information about the city's undergrounding project and how it would fit in to the city's past and present plans for the future. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we strive to bring you interesting stories like the one in Fort Collins. We also bring you these stories with no commercials, but our work requires funding. Please take a few moments to go to ILSR.org or Muninetworks.org and donate today to help us continue our mission. If you have donated before, thanks for your continuing support. If you're a new donor, welcome aboard and thank you. Now, here are Chris and Mayor Wade Troxell from Fort Collins, Colorado.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today, I'm speaking with Mayor Wade Troxell of Fort Collins, Colorado. Welcome to the show.

Mayor Troxell: Good morning, Chris. Great to be here today.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's great to have you on. I've been through Fort Collins. I often note when I've been to a place. Fort Collins left an impression on me that we'll discuss toward the end of the show, I think. Why don't you describe it for people who aren't familiar with it?

Mayor Troxell: Fort Collins is a wonderful community. I'm sure a lot of mayors would say that sort of thing, but it's my hometown. It's the town I grew up in. It's a town with a 160,000 citizens. We're the home of Colorado State University, so we are a university city and with that, we have a lot of the kinds of amenities that are with university cities. We have a evergreen population with about 3,200 students on an annual basis. It's also an important part of the history of Fort Collins. Fort Collins was founded in 1864. It was never a fort. It was Camp Collins, and it was established as a town in 1864. Colorado State University was founded in 1870 while it was still a territory, so the two had been joined together from the very beginning. Being a university city, meaning things that like high arts and culture, we're one of the highest in terms of patents per capita of any city. We have low crime rate. We have wonderful, natural environment that we enjoy, and we have employers such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, BroadCom, Nvidia, a lot of high tech companies like that. Also, we're featured in the Smithsonian at the U.S. Museum of American History. Right now, an exhibit that's running five years as a place of innovation where it talks about five cities of innovation in the past. The sixth city, Fort Collins, is 2010's going forward around clean renewable energy. We're very involved with innovations related to clean tech. Because of that, I think there's very much relevance to the kinds of discussion that we're talking about today related to our initiative, related to Broadband and how we're approaching that.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and we'll turn to that in a second. I wanted to note first that you and I met in Seattle as part of the Digital Northwest event that was put on by Next Century Cities and also NTIA. You were being a mayor of a city that's a part of Next Century Cities. You were on a panel that I hosted. We had, I thought, a great panel, but I was curious if you took anything away from that event.

Mayor Troxell: The one thing that really just solidified in a lot of ways is there's a lot of communities doing a lot of things that we're trying to do. I think the takeaway for me was whether it's a small community such as Sandy, Oregon or a larger community like Fort Collins, really trying to provide digital services in their community to their citizens in all different sorts of ways. Clearly, there's a lot of broadband providers and that sort of thing, but also, I think, the element around broadband is it's important to society today and to our community for economic development to access to educational opportunity for digital health, and all different aspects of our lives today really require having broadband access. That's ubiquity of broadband, and with that, one of my takeaways was really where various communities are going, where they have come from, and the challenges that they're facing.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think of with a community like Fort Collins is that it seems like you have everything going for you. One of the things that could potentially slow you, I think, because you have so many things going for you, is if you didn't have that super high-quality connections to everyone. You know that there's high-tech jobs. You're certainly just in a wonderful area for the outdoor lifestyle. The great university there. Is that something that you feel is a motivator? Is there a sense that if you don't figure out how to make sure everyone has this high-quality Internet access, that that might be one of the only things that might be a detriment of your community?

Mayor Troxell: Right. Being a high-tech community with the university -- Basically, our citizens through their workplace or through their educational opportunities or through the research that goes on here, they do have access to a high-quality broadband, a lot of computing resources wherever they may exist, and utilization of that on a daily hourly basis. The expectation of our community is very high. In Colorado, we have Senate bill 152 that as a community, even to begin to entertain discussions related to broadband, you need to have a ballot measure that allows for that discussion to municipalize broadband if that is in fact the way that we do go. With that, we took it to the ballot, and it was more than -- We took it to the ballot in November of 2015, and it passed by 83%.

Christopher Mitchell: Can I just interrupt you for a second? I just find that -- You're an elected official. What other things pass by 83%? It seems like it's in a league of its own.

Mayor Troxell: That's right. That's one of those that's a mandate. Basically, that's a clear mandate to pursue. What we're doing is being very deliberate up front to pursuing all options from private sector through public private partnerships to what would be our fifth utility for the city if we do so choose to go in that direction.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Let's turn to what you're doing. First, I just wanted to make sure people -- If anyone has the impression that you don't have broadband, that would be incorrect. You certainly do have cable Internet, and you have DSL and perhaps even a few areas that have a gigabit to an apartment building or something like that. I would say Fort Collins basically has the same connectivity you would find in the average metro area. You're looking to do something better. Tell us how the city of Fort Collins is going about trying to figure out what it should do.

Mayor Troxell: You are correct. We are like any community that has broadband as it's currently configured and rolling out. We've had discussion with our providers. We have what we call our Futures Committee where we had discussions about where our providers are going and that sort of thing. It really wasn't the kind of stretch goals that as a community we tend to think about a lot in terms of improving resources and capabilities of our citizens in our community. It was because the voters in November of 2015. Where we are right now is through this calendar year, we're going through a very deliberate process of looking at all the options and comparing them. We have a citizens ad hoc committee. We have an expert review committee that has been formed that people outside our community that have been involved with broadband in a lot of different sorts of ways that they're actively engaged with discussions with our city staff and others within our community. We're doing an assessment of where we are and where the standards are, and market demand studies, and feasibility analysis, and SWAT analysis, all different sorts of things, and community engagement as we go along. By the end of this year, we'll have a recommendation coming to a city council work session where we'll discuss that and then decide how we go forward. In Colorado, any taxi measures have to go to the vote of the people. If that's one of the ways in terms of raising capital in order to proceed, that would be a subsequent measure or any other measures along the spectrum of what we are looking at. We're literally right in the middle of that process now and having a lot of discussions in our community related to that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I took away after talking with one of the committee members and getting a sense of what you were doing was the sense that there is going to be progress. She was laying out some of the different options that you were considering, and I said, "Well, presumably, one of the options will be to do nothing," because when I was trained in policy analysis and that sort of thing, they always said one of the policy options, it has to be to do nothing. Right, there was a pause. She said, "Well actually, that's not an option in this case."

Mayor Troxell: That's right. I think we are what we could call our baseline. From there is any number of ways where we could go. That's where even discussions with some of our providers today as to -- There's many different layers to what broadband means and whether it's simply the pipe, the physical layer, or whether it's -- A lot of the capabilities and the technology that goes into that as well as providing public access and all different sorts of things for public benefit. There's a lot of different ways that this can be constructed as a public policy recommendation. I think that's where there's a lot of discussion going from where we are today to improved access and capabilities within our community.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you have going for you is a good network of conduit. I want to come back to that, but first let me just note the thing that struck me about Fort Collins. It took me a while, because my first time coming to Fort Collins, I was going to a meeting, your electric utility, the municipal electric utility. They were looking at different kinds of options. I happened to be in town anyway for something else, and so they nicely agreed to meet with me. I was driving there, and I was really focused on coming off the highway. I was just trying to focus on how to get there, following directions. Something was nagging at me. Something felt a little bit weird. I later realized that it was you don't have any poles around in the area that I was. You had underground at all of these facilities. Whether you're looking at the front range of the mountains or just the trees and everything else, it was just beautiful. There was no distractions or these ugly lines. I'm curious if you can tell us a little bit about it. You have such a large community. Undergrounding that must just have been a very large effort.

Mayor Troxell: Undergrounding of the electric utility was a decision made by a city council. In fact, my dad was on that city council in the 1960s for undergrounding the electric system in Fort Collins. Fort Collins is a municipally-owned utility where right now, we partner with 4 utilities, Loveland, Longmont, S-Park, and Fort Collins for our generation and transmission for our electric power. Fort Collins has its own distributional utility for the electric. The decision was made in the 1960s to underground our electric system. I reflect upon that a lot, because we face -- Broadband is one of those which would be a very expensive proposition if we were to go forward with another utility and funding it and that sort of thing. I think of the undergrounding as that's difficult to make the case as to why to do it, because you could say, "Yeah, it would make our electric power more reliable," but it's only between severe weather events you would even think about that sort of thing. It's between those crisis points. You're only looking at those events in the context of a large price tag of how to do that sort of thing. In fact, there were lack of technology that you could underground it completely. There had to be some innovation related to that. The decision was made, and it was when Fort Collins was much smaller than it is today. I would guess it was probably in the 30 to 40,000. With the growth, everything was undergrounded, but also the commitment to backfill an underground in our old town and older neighborhoods where there were power lines going down the alleys and in our old town which is now a jewel in our community, which is thriving with restaurants and bars and a lot of great boutique stores. It's really created our community to be a destination for tourists in our old town. There's no power lines. They're undergrounded over time, so now our electric power system as a part of the distribution is about 99% undergrounded.

Christopher Mitchell: I really view this as being an inspiration for what government can do in the sense that it's such an impressive, long-scale project. It's something that I think your dad and other people in the city council made thinking, "This is something in which people are going to be voting tomorrow or in the next year or so on our performance. We're committing to spending all this money. The benefits of undergrounding aren't going to be realized for decades." Just to have that long vision and to say, "We're going to do this. It's going to be the smart thing to do." I think that's very inspiring. I'm really curious how that plays into the conduit, because if you had a bunch of poles everywhere, arguably it would be cheaper for you to just build fiber on top of them. Do you have a lot of conduit available now that you can use as a result of that undergrounding.

Mayor Troxell: You know, how many years ago, but whenever a trench is opened up, they've been putting additional conduit in there, because it's easier to do it at that time than later. It's really marginally the cost of doing that sort of thing. At least on the major arterials in our community, a lot of conduit that's been put in place over time for anticipation of, I don't know necessarily broadband, but could have been for electric service, too. Knowing that it was easier to put it down at that time than at some later point to open up another trench. There's a lot of coordination. That's probably I think one of the benefits that came from this because of having to dig a lot. A lot of conduit was laid. With that said, going forward, there'd still be a lot of boring by going forward with the broadband initiative.

Christopher Mitchell: On our podcast last week, I had noted this, and I'll just note it again, because oddly enough, we have 2 cities that we have in a row. Alexandra, Minnesota is also doing some undergrounding. It just came up in our conversation. I just lost power for 24 hours after an electrical storm. Even just as I'm thinking about what my wife and I want to do with our backyard, boy, I'm probably going to do some undergrounding just basically from the garage to the house to get ride of some overhead lines. This is one of those things where I feel like as we put more value on the aesthetics, I think we're going to see more of this. I really thing you're ahead of the curve on that, and I can only imagine what the benefits have been in terms of the fewer power outages and things like that.

Mayor Troxell: The benefits are multi fold. There's the view shed that you mentioned. What you don't see are power lines as you look at the mountains and just the trees and the things that are around in your community. The weather events, we really don't think of outages. Our reliability of our electric power system is around 9, 5-9 is a power quality that puts it into minutes per year. That might be just a flicker for some other reason or the transmission lines, which are the high voltage lines, are above grounded. That might be the weakest link within our community whether it's a severe storm. We get a lot of spring snows that are very heavy. We don't have outages. Also, I just think the service going into houses via a line above ground just from a safety perspective just having kids and kites and poles and those sorts of things are much greater as well. Really, everything is undergrounded and really can be managed. There's less exposure to a lot of contact points that you might have had otherwise.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. When our power was out, my dad, it just sort of struck him. He was talking on the cell phone, and he was saying, "I can't believe it's 2016, and the fact that a branch fell off a tree means you're not going to have power."

Mayor Troxell: It's really more insidious than that, because the branch falling off a tree in 2003 -- It was literally a branch in Ohio that fell and knocked out the power in a quarter of the United States in the northeast. Because of the central power plant model, it created a cascading failure. That's where there's different ways of doing things today much through distributed power and other sorts of ways of doing things. Undergrounding is just another one of those where you can increase reliability and also realize many other benefits.

Christopher Mitchell: That's right, I'm forgetting. You have an engineering background, don't you?

Mayor Troxell: I do.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Mayor Troxell: I'm on the faculty at Colorado State University in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. You know all about distributed energy and things like that. It's been a focus for you, right?

Mayor Troxell: Right. That's right.

Christopher Mitchell: This has been terrific. Fort Collins in many ways embodies a lot of the thoughtfulness that we'd like to see in local government in planning ahead. I'm just curious. I sometimes get a question from people which is even from some economic development officials in cities that I would say don't get, including my own unfortunately in St. Paul. They'll sometimes say, "Well, how do I know that it's worth it to put some conduit underground if I'm not sure that we're going to use it. I could be spending that $1000 or $100,000 depending on the size of the project elsewhere." What kind of advice do you give to other elected officials in terms of looking ahead and making that bet?

Mayor Troxell: As a mayor, as a leader in the community, I think it's incumbent upon us to not only do the heads down incremental trends of policy related things that we tend to do on a biweekly basis and things within our community issues as they transpire within our community, but we also have to be lifting our head up and looking at the horizon. Having discussions whether or not we're on the right trajectory to where we want to go, it puts things in perspective that we should be thinking and planning for 30, 50, 100 years out and making sure we're on the right trajectory for that. Decisions that we make today can actually be that we're on the right trajectory. That doesn't mean we have to fully implement, fund, and that sort of thing. That can be in many different sorts of things. We've been talking about broadband, but it can also be related to -- We talked about energy, water, the environment, climate, transportation, any of the issues that really do make up our cities in our regions and our relationships with our neighboring communities and with our state. We can truly affect things at the local level.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today. It's been great.

Mayor Troxell: Well, Chris, thank you very much. Keep up the great work. I look forward to the next time we get together.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris and Mayor Wade Troxell from Fort Collins, Colorado. For more, check out the tag on muninetworks.org. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. You can also follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, or the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thank you to the group Roller Genoa for their song "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms" licensed through Creative Commons. Thank you for listening to episode 211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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