This is episode 282 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Joining the show from Fort Collins, Colorado, Glen Akins and Colin Garfield describe the grassroots organizing that defeated a Comcast-funded astroturf group. Listen to this episode here.
Glen Akins: The $451,000 turned this from a local story to this small town in Colorado to a national news item.
Lisa Gonzalez: You are listening to Episode 282 the bonus episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In Fort Collins, Colorado, the community voted earlier this month to change their city charter in order to simplify the process if the city decides to invest in high quality internet network infrastructure. Voters chose to opt out of restrictive state laws back in 2015. In an attempt to derail the campaign so that they wouldn't have to face the prospect of competition, Comcast and cronies led an expensive local disinformation campaign. Under the guise of a local grassroots group, they blanketed the community with misleading advertisements and literature. According to campaign disclosures, the Comcast front group spent around $451,000 to fight the local initiative. In end, the initiative passed. We reached out to two people in Fort Collins who were spearheading the campaign to pass Measure 2B. We wanted to hear how they did it. Colin Garfield and Glen Akins are here to offer their insight into what worked, what they would change and what they were thinking while pitted against the Goliath ISP. Now here's Christopher, with Colin Garfield and Glen Akins from Fort Collins Colorado.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self Reliance up in Minneapolis and today I'm speaking with Colin Garfield, campaign lead for Fort Collins Citizens' Broadband Committee, welcome to the show.
Colin Garfield: Thank you, Chris. Pleasure to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: And also, Glen Akins who's also campaign lead for Fort Collins Citizens' Broadband Committee. Welcome to the show.
Glen Akins: Thanks, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: So, this is I think really exciting. We had this interesting history in Colorado of now well over one hundred communities reclaiming local authority from a state that usurped it in 2005. Maybe we'll start with, before we really get into that too much though, what is Fort Collins like for people who haven't been there and I'll just take the easy answer, which is that it is insanely beautiful. I don't understand how any of you get any work done. But, Colin, let me ask you first to just maybe tell us a little bit about Fort Collins.
Colin Garfield: Yeah, so our city's about 165,000 people and it’s a university town. So Colorado State University, this is the home to it. We have a pretty progressive and highly educated city, which is, you know, great benefit to this campaign and I guess Fort Collins is kind of known for not only its university but it's also known for its breweries. We have like twenty some breweries and it's a bicycle town and it's this really progressive, cool city that we live in.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, we actually did a podcast with your mayor, previously. We'll have that in the notes along with this show for people who might want to go back and learn a little bit more about the under grounding that's been done there. It's a remarkable, remarkable place I think in terms of long term decision-making, which is kind of what we're going to be talking about and Glen, I think maybe you can provide a little bit of background on what's happening broadband-wise over the past five years or so in Fort Collins.
Glen Akins: Initially, Fort Collins wanted to be a Google Fiber city and they pursued that but that didn't pan out, so they also participated in the Gig.U which is created by Blair Levin who was a former FCC chairman, I believe, or attorney with the FCC. And so they kind of went through that process and then about two years ago, we had our SB 152 opt-out vote and that was critical to align the city to move forward and spend money on planning and analyzing and researching a broadband network for the city. Once we opted out of that, we had about a two year process where we worked with consultants and cities and community people to come up with a broadband plan and ultimately that effort went to the ballot box last November for the voters to vote on.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, just a quick note. Blair was, I believe, the Chief-of-Staff for people who are curious, but you're right, he started the Gig.U process, which got a lot of communities thinking about this. One other note, a little bit of housekeeping, sometimes people think that they would also be able to organize a referendum to opt-out of their state barriers and I just wanted to make sure that it was clear to everyone that this is unique to Colorado.
Colin Garfield: Very unique.
Christopher Mitchell: If you're in North Carolina, no such luck, you've been pre-empted, I'm sorry. But one of the things that's interesting is you've gone through two referenda now and in the first one, which was just to opt out, Comcast didn't really oppose it, I think right, and then in this one, they did. Just maybe briefly give us a sense of what you were up against.
Colin Garfield: Kind of the quick history about that is in 2015, when the original opt-out passed, we had an 84% pass rate, which is historic. Very few elections pass at that level and as far as opposition, there was no formal citizen opposition or any formal Comcast opposition. Fortunately, the group that was supporting this was able to do so with a very small amount of money and there really wasn't much push back at all.
Christopher Mitchell: And so if you fast forward to today or even a few months ago, there's much stronger opposition and I think we can jump more into that in a second. Glen, tell us a little bit about the Fort Collins Citizens' Broadband Committee.
Glen Akins: Under Colorado state law and probably most other state laws, the city itself isn't allowed to lobby for or against ballot measure once it has been placed on the ballot. So the city wasn't able to help us with anything. So Colin and myself and another guy, Tim, as well as some folks at Colorado State University got together and we formed this Citizens' Issue Committee to advocate for the passage of the ballot issue and that's how the Fort Collins Citizens' Broadband Committee got its start.
Christopher Mitchell: When you say, and either one of you can certainly jump in, you got together and started this group, I feel like we can spend a little bit of time in there. Did you already know each other, did you meet through a website like Meet Up or did you meet in a coffee shop. How did you all know each other and start organizing?
Glen Akins: So we all kind of knew each other from the SB 152 process from two, two and a half years ago. And then in addition to that, the city had had public outreach sessions over the past two years and so a lot of us met through those public outreach sessions that the city had and now this is kind of a natural extension to all those outreach sessions.
Christopher Mitchell: And Colin, what was your perspective, how did ... was this just a matter of you got together at a bar one night and started talking about it, thought "Hey, let's actually do this," or was there some other method in which you got it rolling?
Colin Garfield: Well, it's kind of interesting. So we all joined the citizen committee, which is sponsored by the city back in March of 2016 and we kind of got to know each other a little bit more and then it kind of grew up and kind of understood each other's skill sets and our passion and then in June of 2016, I formed a public outreach group called Broadband and Beers and so what that entailed was me having monthly events at local breweries and inviting citizens, policy makers and staff and kind of really publishing this project outside of the city and kind of get people involved more. And so I guess, we kind of created our own platform starting with the committee and then with Broadband and Beers, then it graduated with the actual ballot committee. So it's kind of a long term, a 16 month platform progression, I guess you could say. It wasn't like an overnight idea, it just gradually gained more steam ad more steam as the months went by.
Christopher Mitchell: What was the first Broadband and Beers like? In some ways, I think there was a similar group in Longmont and so this is not totally unprecedented but how did it come about and how did you make people aware of it?
Colin Garfield: So the first event was not successful. I had about twelve people show up including like four staff members so it was a pretty small turnout.
Christopher Mitchell: I think you're selling yourself short, I think not successful is you on a bar stool.
Colin Garfield: Okay, good point. It started out with some immediate interest from about ten or twelve people and I kind of published this originally on Reddit and Facebook and things like that so I used that digital platform to publish and advertise it. And I also went through the official city channel to invite staff members, city council members and the mayor and through the ... I think I did seven or eight of these things and I believe the mayor showed up to three of them, council members showed up to three or four of them, we had staff at every one of them. So it gave an opportunity for citizens to not only talk about it among themselves but also to actually ask the mayor and council and staff about the actual project itself and get a direct response from them.
Christopher Mitchell: Colin, have you organized things like this in the past or was this somewhat new for you?
Colin Garfield: So this is the first time I've really rolled the dice on advocacy. That's always a fun word to say, right? So, yeah, it's kind of my first go around and I kind of had to teach myself public outreach, communications with it, advertising. I'd never done it before. My professional background is a GIS cartographer so I used to make maps for a living and that's not really related to any of this, so. It was my first go around with all of this.
Christopher Mitchell: And Glen, I'm curious if you have any background in local organizing?
Glen Akins: Absolutely none whatsoever. There's a bit of shock on Colin and I's faces where we left one of our meetings and realized that we were it for the ballot issue. It was us, Tim and a few other local organizers and that was it, we were on our own from that point out.
Christopher Mitchell: And when did you realize that you in some ways weren't just David going up against Goliath. You were David going up against Goliath and several of his friends and a massive cash campaign of influence behind them?
Glen Akins: That was one of the first campaign finance disclosure, actually, the second campaign finance disclosure was filed by the opposition. The first one, they just showed $10,000, $11,000 in income and no spending but the second finance disclosure, which was about two weeks before the election, two and a half weeks maybe, we saw the $200,000 amount there and at that point we realized that this was big. It wasn't quite as big as Longmont's battle back in 2009, 2010 whenever that was. But we realized it was big. The Friday before the elections when we found out that the $451,000 had been spent against us and at that point, there's a little bit of freaking out, a little bit of panic and a little bit of "what did we get ourselves into and how is this going to work out"? As you know, it turned out well.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, well what was the final vote?
Glen Akins: 57 to 43.
Colin Garfield: Yeah, that's correct.
Christopher Mitchell: So I'm curious, Glen, I'll stick with you on this. Did you have a sense, like a confidence going into it or was it this sense of "oh man, it's going to be tight"?
Glen Akins: So, when Kaley Rogers at Motherboard asked me that question, I thought it was going to be close, maybe 60 to 40 in favor and then, I think the Sunday and Monday before the election, got a little worried and I started thinking it was going to be 60 to 40 against us. And then, I think, Tuesday morning, I got a little bit more positive attitude and my prediction was 52 to 48 for us so I'm happy with the 57 to 43 turnout. But that was kind of my thinking along the time, seeing the money, seeing the reactions, having people on forums second guess how we were running our campaign and stuff. There's a lot of emotional ups and downs there leading into this process. Lots of lost sleep too.
Christopher Mitchell: If there's one thing that drives me nuts, is people who haven't invested of themselves, telling other people who are out there working and sacrificing how to do things. I'm sure you got a fair amount of that.
Glen Akins: It really didn't start until the Tuesday morning before the election I think. There was a little bit of blow back on one of the forums out there that basically said we should have ran a more negative campaign, we should have pointed out Comcast failures at every turn and I think this being an off year election, that would have turned off a lot of voters, they would have seen the negativity on the Comcast side, they would have seen the negativity on our side and instead of going out and voting for us, they probably would have just stayed home. So, I'm really glad we stuck with running a positive campaign and talked about what a symmetric fiber optic gigabit network could bring to our community versus just bashing the incumbents.
Christopher Mitchell: Colin, I think were there things that you were involved with aside from the Broadband and Beers? Because there's a sense of running a positive campaign, I'm guessing you did more than get together once a month to talk.
Colin Garfield: Yeah. So, I kind of took the management role from the get go with all this and what I mean by that is, with Tim and Glen and some other gentlemen on the committee, my goal and my role was to really keep everybody together for a month at a time and kind of manage this group and make sure that everyone's skill sets are utilized and that we don't lose anyone along the way and I also built the website for our committee and I did a bunch of public speaking engagements and I had multi-faceted role within the group but primarily early on it was religiously managing the entire thing before we actually got a campaign manager.
Christopher Mitchell: When you're dealing with an entity that's spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, I assume that the only way that they can do that is by a lot of TV and radio ads. I presume that you did neither. What sort of mass media did you do? Did you have glossy mailers, how did you get the word out to people who may not already know about it?
Colin Garfield: With $15,000 you can't do a whole lot. You have to be very, very targeted in what you do. So you're looking for the best bang for your buck. So what we basically did, we sent about ten thousand mailers to a voter database that we had ahold of. We did some radio ads but I think our main attack was through Facebook and social media. We had a very extensive page, we spent a lot of money on that. I think it was around $3000 total on that. We boosted a lot of posts, we had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of comments that were responded to and a very in depth conversation on the Facebook page. I also took a lot of care developing the Reddit response. The Reddit Fort Collins group was a big proponent of this so I published this for about 14 or 15 months straight to make sure people were aware on that platform as well. So we kind of took small angles, we didn't have any big TV ads, any big radio ads, we didn't send out multiple mailers to residences like the opposition group. We didn't have a lot of money to work with so we had to be very careful about how we spent it.
Glen Akins: I think some people received eight mailers from the opposition in their mailboxes over the course of the campaign.
Christopher Mitchell: Did the opposition hurt themselves ultimately with a message that just seemed belittling and also, they made this wild claim in terms of how much money would be authorized when that actually wasn't in the language? Just for people who aren't familiar. This vote technically was to change the city's charter and to authorize a maximum level of debt borrowing. Not that the city was going to borrow that much but that it had to pick a maximum amount and so that was the amount that the city could borrow up to with whatever plan is developed in the coming year or years. One of the things that the Comcast funded group did was they claimed that that money was all going to be spent and wasted and wouldn't be available for roads and things like that. How did people react to those claims?
Glen Akins: The opposition framed it as we could spend $150,000,000 on broadband or we could spend $150,000,000 on roads or schools or public safety but the truth of the matter is that only one of those had a stream of revenue coming in to pay back the $150,000,000 that would be borrowed and that was broadband. If you wanted to spend $150,000,000 on roads or schools or public safety, you'd have to find some way to pay back that $150,000,000 you've borrowed. So, that was the big difference. It was pretty easy to point out that if we built a broadband network, we have this separate revenue stream to pay it off and that revenue stream is coming out of Comcast and Century Link's bottom line. It's not coming through new fees on electric bills, it's not coming through new property taxes, it's not coming through new tax increases or general revenues.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, Colin, I'm curious if you have a reaction also?
Colin Garfield: Yeah, so kind of going back to your earlier question. Like Glen was saying, we were shocked when we saw the amount of money being spent and at that time it was terrifying. But in hindsight, I actually think it was a gift to us because it allowed us to really publish this to news media outlets and we dozens and dozens of people cover it. We had TV interviews, radio interviews and I think people that may not have voted at all actually ended up voting because they were so sickened by the number being spent. So I think in the short term it was terrifying but I think in hindsight, it actually was a gift to us as strange as that sounds.
Glen Akins: The $451,000 turned this from a local story to this small town in Colorado to a national news item and so we made Comcast hometown paper the Philly Inquirer, we made Ars Technica, we made Motherboard, we made all the Denver area stations and if Comcast and Century Link and their organizations hadn't spent that money, it would have been just another local vote and another local story.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that is somewhat unique about your situation I think is I don't know of another city, maybe a Boulder or something, but in the year 2017, you have Comcast is either about to offer gigabit downloads or could be offering it in some areas already, you have Century Link has built some fiber to the home, fiber to apartment buildings perhaps in Fort Collins. It's a harder case to make that you're not getting investment from the big companies in a place like Fort Collins than in Loveland nearby or other smaller towns so in that respect, you guys really knocked it out of the park by demonstrating the strong demand for something better than the big cable and telephone companies. I was just wondering if you can reflect on that a little bit.
Glen Akins: One of the big things we emphasized was that we wanted our citizens not just to be able to consume content but we wanted them to be able to create content and in order to do that we need the fast uploads and the fast uploads just aren't there with either Century Link's DSL offering or Comcast gigabit offering in the city. The other thing that really helped us there with respect to Comcast gigabit offering is that it's $20 a month more here than it is in Longmont and it also doesn't include unlimited data here but it does include unlimited data in Longmont. So the service in Longmont is $70 a month where they have their own municipal fiber network but to get that same service without a data cap in Fort Collins, is $140 a month and so we were really able to press the issue with the price discrepancy there between the cities that had their own municipal fiber network and the city that doesn't and I think that helped us too.
Colin Garfield: Yeah, I agree with that and I think the other thing too was developing messaging and key points for different demographics within the city. So, rather than having this one umbrella statement saying this is why we should get gigabit, we really focused on adapting language to each, so the senior citizens, to students, to tech entrepreneurs, small businesses, the average person. So we spent a lot of careful time crafting those messages to make sure that each angle was addressed and not just assuming that one message, that one size fit all kind of thing.
Christopher Mitchell: Was there any specific approach or tactic you took that surprised you in terms of how well it worked or how it did not work?
Colin Garfield: I guess when I first, we first started in the Facebook push, I'd thought maybe it would be like fifty people would follow the group and we'd have daily posts that maybe got like ten or fifteen likes and a couple comments and in reality we ended up getting like 550 people who liked the page. We had thousands of comments by the end of the campaign, [inaudible
00:20:52]. That really blew me away that the conversation was so in depth and so critical and the other part of that too is the opposition group had a Facebook page that was locked down, you couldn't join it, you couldn't comment. Their YouTube page was locked down, you couldn't even talk to them. So they sent their trolls over to our page and we still had a conversation with them and when we couldn't even send our people over to their page. The other thing that surprised me is that on Reddit Fort Collins, and I know Reddit's historically quarterbacks and armchair theorists they always stigmatized as not going in public and talking and actually making a movement, this is by far the most energetic and high response topic we've ever seen in Fort Collins Reddit and a lot of people came out and a lot of people interacted with it. We even had people organize a public sign waving on one of our busiest intersections, which people who follow Reddit is mind-blowing to me. So I think the digital platform was what really surprised me and the effectiveness of that.
Glen Akins: The organic reach of our Facebook posts really surprised me too. I mean the organic reach got up into the tens of thousands. We paid to kind of get the initial kick off and get the message out there but once the message got out there, people started sharing things and our organic rate was tremendous too.
Christopher Mitchell: Right and we're talking about a city with about 140,000 people.
Colin Garfield: 165, yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: Right so in eligible voters, people who actually vote, ten thousand reach is a significant part of the electorate for an off year election.
Colin Garfield: Absolutely, yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, is there anything else that we should mention for people who I think are inspired by this and hopefully learning from it and trying to organize in their own communities?
Glen Akins: One thing I want to say is, if you've never been through the election process before as an active participant, an organizer of an about issue campaign or something, you do need professional help, hire a campaign manager and your campaign manager should know graphic artists in the area, she should know how to place ads with the local newspaper, how to reach DJs to record radio ads for you, how to place ads with radio, how to write letters to the editor. You definitely need someone who's been through this process before and has the contacts for all these organizations that you will be doing business with so that as volunteers who are also doing your day job, you're not wasting a lot of time trying to figure out how to place an ad with the local paper or how to place an or record a spot with the radio station.
Christopher Mitchell: Great, that's terrific advice. Colin?
Colin Garfield: Yeah, so I think it's really having the mindset of playing the long game. Going through municipal broadband, it takes months if not years to really make progress and don't be discouraged by lateral gains or small gains, it's a long game you need to play. That patience is something I learned early on, it takes incredible patience. And a couple other things that I would recommend is really starting with that core group of people who are highly energetic, who know what they are talking about, who are very passionate about the subject and then kind of develop that larger steering committee. But you want to have that core group, it's really important. And I guess a few other things. Unfortunately, in this world, it takes money so lessons learned from my group, or our group I should say is you have to start your fundraising early, you have to identify your stakeholders whether it's major businesses, universities, business groups etc. And also a big one that I learned was that publishing documents and making emails from city council transparent and publishing those for people to know about and really creating that window transparency so people can see the inner workings of the project and not just on the surface is very, very crucial too. We don't have a magical playbook but we did learn quite a bit and we're always happy to discuss it with people in different communities.
Christopher Mitchell: Great and no doubt that you'll have some people contacting you. I'm happy to connect people to you to make sure that this continues and the enthusiasm that you all helped to create will continue to spread. We need people to step up and take responsibility even if they're not elected officials. That's the way our democracy is supposed to work and it is inspiring when people do that and make a difference. Thank you for doing it, thank you for sharing your lessons.
Colin Garfield: Yeah, absolutely, thanks for having us. I appreciate it.
Glen Akins: Thank you, Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Colin Garfield and Glen Akins from Fort Collins Colorado. Check out our coverage of the campaign and efforts to improve connectivity in Fort Collins at MuniNetworks.org. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcasts@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and any other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research but also subscribing to our monthly newletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to Arnie Huseby for the song “Warm Duck Shuffle” licensed through Creative Commons and thanks for listening to episode 282 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.