Paradoxically, the incumbents argue that public sector broadband is both an unfair competitor and obviously an inferior service doomed to failure in the market.
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The "constant drumbeat" of complaints about poor connectivity pounding from Colorado communities ended with a climactic crash at the polls on Tuesday. Referenda in 47 communities* - 27 cities and towns; 20 counties - all passed overwhelmingly to reclaim local telecommunications authority.
The landslide victory was no surprise. Last year, nine communities asked voters the same issue of whether or not they wanted the ability to make local telecommunications decisions. That right was taken away 10 years ago by SB 152. Two other communities took up the question earlier this year with 75 percent and 92 percent of voters supporting local telecommunications authority.
A few larger communities, such as Boulder, Montrose, and Centennial, presented the issue to the voters and reclaimed local authority in prior years. This year, most of the voting took place in smaller, rural communities where incumbents have little incentive to invest in network upgrades.
This year, results were similar as the majority of voters supported local measures with over 70 percent of ballots cast. In Durango, over 90 percent of voters chose to opt out of restrictive SB 152; Telluride voters affirmed their commitment to local authority when over 93 percent of votes supported measure 2B. Many communities showed support in the mid- and upper- 80th percentile.
Schools Win, Too
In addition to economic development, Colorado communities are looking to the future by planning for students and tomorrow's workforce. Ballot questions in a number locations asked voters to allow school districts to have the option of investing in telecommunications if necessary. They don't have faith that incumbents will keep up with their growing needs.
Colorado Mountain College, also unsure of the future, asked voters in six different communities for permission to provide their own Internet, if necessary. Voters in all locations said "yes."
Out From Under The "Dark Cloud"
Virgil Turner, Director of Innovation from the City of Montrose, describes what it is like when a community opts out of SB 152:
"We didn't know exactly what we'd do," Turner said. "But we no longer are under this dark cloud of not being able to be innovative."
SB 152 first passed through the state legislature in 2005 after heavy lobbying from Comcast and CenturyLink. Legislators and lobbyists backing the law argued its intent was taxpayer protection but the past 10 years have proved otherwise. The real motivation behind the bill was to protect incumbent de facto monopolies and prevent potential competition by municipal networks.
The law hurts taxpayers by discouraging private investment. It prevents local governments from working with private sector ISP partners who may want to use publicly owned fiber infrastructure. It stalls economic development because employers can't get the connectivity they need. It stifles growth in the small communities that need growth the most.
These communities have waited patiently for incumbents to invest in better infrastructure but communities will no longer wait and watch while places like Longmont, Rio Blanco, and Estes Park leave them behind.
Until the State Legislature decides to strike SB 152 and the expensive hoops communities must jump through to opt out of it, places like Fort Collins, Steamboat Springs, and Pitkin County will be forced to spend precious public dollars on this type of referenda.
The Time to Act is Now
Ken Fellman, general counsel with the Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance told the Denver Post:
It's not that we want to compete with the private sector — it's that the private sector isn't providing the level of service the community needs.
Now that these communities have recovered the right to determine their broadband destiny, they have a choice. They can rest in the comfort of knowing they comply with the law or explore endless possibilities now open to them. They can stop pounding drums and start innovating.
Update: We learned about the community of Ophir after publishing our article, which originally reported 43 communities. The correct number, as listed below, is 44 communities.
November 18th update: Virgil Turner from Montrose has been helping us keep tabs on the statewide elections and he sends word that Gunnison County, Ouray County, and Delta County also passed measures to reclaim local authority. Their results were 73 percent, 83 percent, and 76 percent respectively. We originally reported on the cities of Gunnison, Ouray, and Delta, but were not aware of the county referenda. With the addition of these three, the grand total of communities that chose to reclaim local authority this election cycle comes to 47.