Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the episode 95 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Virgil Turner on community network in Montrose, Colorado. Listen to this episode here.
Virgil Turner: We think about our citizens in a different way. Not just what -- the amount of profit I can extract from our citizens, but what we really need to do to help our citizens?
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. You are listening to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
On April 1st, the voters in Montrose, Colorado, voted yes on Measure A. The decision allows the community to establish a telecommunications utility. In 2005, state statute took away that right. In this episode, Chris talks with Virgil Turner, Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose. Virgil describes an all-too-familiar scenario in Montrose, a place where the quality of life is high except for one thing: residents and businesses cannot get the connectivity they need from incumbents. Montrose voters have spoken, and community leaders are ready to take a thoughtful approach that focuses on local needs. Here are Chris and Virgil.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today I'm speaking with Virgil Turner, the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement for the City of Montrose in Colorado. Welcome to the show.
Virgil Turner: Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me.
Chris: Absolutely. Thanks for coming on. Last time I was in Colorado, it was hard to leave. It was just the beginning of spring, and I was in Longmont and Fort Collins. And just seeing those mountains in the background made it hard to think about ever leaving them. So, why don't you tell us a little bit about Montrose? I understand that you're situated among those mountains.
Virgil: We are. We're nestled in a high valley, at 5800 feet above sea level. We're in western Colorado, situated about 60 miles from the Utah border. We have mountains surrounding us, and public lands. It's an absolutely gorgeous place to be. We're about 30 miles of the San Juan Range, which is a group of 14,000-foot peaks. Just absolutely -- a perfect distance to be away, to take in the full Range.
Chris: You know, it -- sometimes it seems like the beauty of a community is inversely proportional to how easy to serve with telecommunications. So, I'm curious, how are the existing telecommunications services in your community?
Virgil: When I describe Montrose to someone that is out of the area, I try to paint a very pretty picture. But we do have one blemish in Montrose. And, in my mind, that's inadequate broadband capability. We have two incumbent providers, CenturyLink and Charter, and we've seen very little innovation and capital improvement happening on those systems, even though we have been asking for it. And I have heard many people tell stories about placing orders for services that their marketing folks say that they can provide, but when it gets to engineering, for some reason, they're not able to fulfill those orders.
Chris: So do you get a sense that both residents and businesses are not having their needs met?
Virgil: You know, I live right in downtown Montrose. Montrose has about 19,000 people. So we spread out over a fair bit of land. But I live probably about a quarter of a mile from our central office. And I have the benefit of having the fastest DSL that CenturyLink offers. And I'm getting about 12 megabits down and about, if I'm lucky, 1 megabit up. So, folks that are using CenturyLink, it's -- that's something that I can use Netflix and things like that for, in my home. But it is certainly not what I would like to have. And I am one of the fortunate ones. When we get out to the far reaches of our city, CenturyLink, you're lucky if you can get 5 meg. Charter is a little bit better. 25 meg is what they're offering with their triple-play service. But that, apparently, is a marketing term, because I've not heard of too many people actually able to achieve that, especially in the evening hours, when everybody is -- when the demand goes up.
So -- and businesses actually, in a lot of cases, is even worse. I have a business I've been working with. Forty employees have actually two locations, one in Montrose, their headquarters here, and another location in California. A T1 is about the best that they can get at that location. And they're right next to our airport, right in the center of town. And so, we have a real need here.
Chris: The interesting thing is, if your read the op-ed pages in Washington, DC, or probably in Denver, or in many places, people would describe your community as served, because you have DSL. For a number of people, it's in excess of what the FCC would define as the minimum basic broadband connection. You have a cable system, which, yes, is not very fast, but, again, you know, it's not the most awful thing ever. And so, I just -- I think it's worth pointing out that in the eyes of official U.S. policy and what many people who are working for the cable companies, either directly or indirectly, are claiming is that you're a success story. How does that feel?
Virgil: It doesn't feel great. We've had this debate in Colorado, over the last few weeks especially. There's a bill going through our General Assembly right now, looking to reform the high-cost fund. And in the definitions, they talk about areas that are served, or underserved, or not served at all. And they're using thresholds that -- in fact, in the bill, I believe, you're not eligible, as a customer, to receive any of the funding through this reform of the high-cost fund if you have capability of 5600 kilobits per second. So -- and yet they refer to this as a broadband bill. So -- you know, this is a real challenge. What I've seen, we have in Colorado -- you may be familiar -- we have a broadband map; it's put out by the state. Unfortunately, that broadband map -- we get the data from that -- instead of by actual speed tests, we get that data for that from the incumbents. They are self-reporting the level of service. And, in my mind, it
benefits them, if they're trying to limit competition, to report high. And, in fact, if you look at Montrose, on the Colorado Broadband Map, everywhere that we have cable television, it states that we have 25-megabit service available to anybody in that area. And I know that is not true.
Chris: Before CenturyLink was CenturyLink, it was Qwest. And in Colorado, you have this "Qwest Law," which basically revoked your authority, as a community, to build its own network. But, unlike some other states, you're able to have a local referendum and get all that authority back, effectively. And so this is what originally brought you to our attention, is that, as a community, you looked at restoring local authority. Can you walk us through why you decided to go through this effort?
Virgil: Broadband has been on our radar for some time. But our City Council, two years ago, made it a priority for us. They took the leadership role of stating that Montrose needs affordable, reliable, redundant Internet service for our community, and to be able to take advantage of economic development possibilities, and to bring education to our children, who are competing on a global scale these days. They felt that broadband was one of those things that we -- it WAS a blemish here. One of the things that, you know, we knew about Senate Bill 152 -- when we started looking at broadband, we first started trying to figure out if there was some way that the city can be involved. And, of course, this prohibition on municipal participation or competition in broadband was certainly a barrier to us. It prohibits communities in Colorado from even -- municipalities from even offering Wi-Fi service in their parks, and things like that. It's just -- it
is a very stringent law that reduces competition, which gives the incumbents no incentive to put capital investment into our communities.
And so, one of the leaders in Colorado -- Longmont, Colorado -- in 2011, had a successful ballot measure, which asked the citizens a single question: whether they are willing to allow the municipal government to compete in advanced telecommunications. And we placed that on the ballot for April 1st. And 74 percent of our citizens voted yes.
Chris: That's quite a number. You -- if I recall correctly, Longmont got something like 64 or 68 percent. So, congratulations.
Virgil: Well, thanks. I think that the people of Montrose have spoken -- that they are not happy with the current situation. And like cities have done for countless years, our citizens are looking to us to provide a level of service that they have grown to expect, with us providing streets and sidewalks. And water -- clean drinking water. And trash service. So, those services that have traditionally not been a competitive private sector venture in rural America. I think municipal governments need to step in and try to figure out a way to do it.
Chris: You've certainly stepped up to the task. What sort of plans does the city have, now, moving forward?
Virgil: Our immediate plans are to move forward on a feasibility study. We want -- we think that we know a lot of the answers. But if we want to move forward, we want to make sure that we're making the right decisions and creating the business model that will give us the highest level of success in Montrose. We've seen examples of very successful cities: Chattanooga; Lafayette, Louisiana, that have been leaders in this, and have proven that municipal governments can do this, and can be successful. We want to make sure that the business model that we choose in Montrose answers all of the questions that are going to come up in Montrose. And we understand what our market is, and what our anticipated take rate should be for providing these services. And what the services are. We're not sure whether our public is going to demand dial-tone in their homes. We're seeing fewer and fewer people retaining their telephone systems in their homes. I'm not even sure if even cable TV is going to be one of the things that we will be offering, since many people are moving to over-the-top as their -- to services that come in through their data channel. Those are some of the questions we want to ask, and get good answers for -- understand what our market is, what the public is going to demand, what our business sector needs. What I'd like to see is gigabit to the home. But I think our business sector -- I don't want to limit them to a gig. If they need larger bandwidth, we want to be able to be primed and ready to be able to provide that. So....
Chris: [laughs] That's what we want to hear. I don't want to limit myself to just a gig. That's a good marketing campaign. It sounds like all options are on the table, in terms of not just the -- what services may be delivered but maybe even how they're delivered.
Have you considered, or will you be considering, an "open access" arrangement? Or have you decided that the city's going to take a role in insuring that these services are delivered?
Virgil: Well, Christopher, just as you mentioned, I'm going into this -- I think the city in general is going into this -- with all options open. We do have some great private-sector local companies that have been providing -- filling the need -- the demand that's out there. They have limited resources. But they've done a great job of helping those that just can't wait for the city to clear the hurdles ahead of it -- to businesses that just can't wait. And so they have really filled the need. And we want to be respectful to what they've done. You know, I would love to see an "open access" network. I think that's the utopian idea. If we had an "open access" network, that would pay for itself. I think that's the question. And so -- and that's part of what our feasibility study will really be trying to dive into. If we can show that we can make it work, I think that would be my preference. I'd like to see a network that, within the context of our metropolitan area network, being able to allow connections to private-sector cloud services that are located here in Montrose -- that wouldn't need to have Internet access to be able to operate. So if there was ever a disruption in the Internet, folks in Montrose could still, you know, take care of business through cloud services, if all of those resources were available on our network. And that's going to reduce costs for Internet access.
Chris: That's a really smart approach. The needs of having local data available in the event that you may have some outages that prevent you from getting out to the wider Internet. And we've just seen this in other parts of Colorado, with those horrible -- the rainstorm, the flooding, the landslides. So, I think it's a very smart approach. And I also just want to salute you for having an open mind, in terms of looking at the business models that are going to meet your needs. And not just coming in and saying, ideologically, we want to do X, Y, or Z. But having that approach of seeing what the community needs are and then figuring out the best way to meet them. I think that's really smart. So, congratulations.
Virgil: You know, I think, as a municipality, we look at the world a little different than an organization that is run by stockholders. We have -- we're a service-oriented organization. And so we think about our citizens in a different way. Not just what -- the amount of profit I can extract from our citizens but what we really need to do to help our citizens? And I think having a municipal government involved in the operation of a utility like this -- and that's the way we look at this -- I think is very beneficial for our citizens. This is what has distressed me with the states that have bowed down to the pressures to prohibit municipalities from moving forward in this effort.
Chris: One of the things that we always come back to is that it should be up to the communities themselves, because you have the best knowledge of what the local challenges are and what the local assets are. So you should be deciding locally.
Virgil: Absolutely. And I think that's what our voters responded to. When we were talking to voters, prior to the election, we touted this as -- or painted the picture that this is a local control issue. We should know best. Instead of the folks that are serving in Denver. We probably know better what our community needs. We have a better pulse on what's happening here. And to prohibit the folks that should know the best from entering into the game is something that should not take place.
And, I look today, we're 34th, globally, in our ranking -- the United States -- and I think this lack of competition -- and mergers -- mergers upon mergers, to monopoly status, is the main reason for that.
Chris: Absolutely. But you won't have to worry about that for much longer. Thank you for coming on this show. We look forward to learning more, and seeing how you proceed.
Virgil: Thanks, Christopher.
Lisa: Be sure to visit muninetworks.org and follow the Montrose tag. As the community moves forward, we will follow their progress and report to you.
We want your ideas for the Broadband Bits Podcast. Let us know about topics that interest you, or guests you'd like to hear from. Write to email@example.com. You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This show was released on April 22, 2014. Thank you to the group Valley Lodge for their song, "Sweet Elizabeth," licensed using Creative Commons.