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CO Editors Want A "Yes": It's Only Logical

As Election Day approaches, people in a number of Colorado communities will be addressing special ballot questions on local telecommunications authority. Editors of the local news source, the Journal, encourage voters in Montezuma County and Dolores to opt out of harmful SB 152 and reclaim authority taken away in 2005.

“That Industry Has Had Its Chance”

According to editors at the Journal, SB 152 may have sounded like a good thing to legislators in 2005, but big corporate providers have not lived up to promises to bring high-quality connectivity to rural Colorado:

More than a decade later, that industry has had its chance. Internet providers have cherry-picked the lucrative markets and left small communities and even more sparsely populated rural areas with substandard Internet services that are far from high speed. Now it is time for the public sector to step out from under SB 152 restrictions.

By our last count, 27 towns and counties will offer voters the choice to opt out, but we may discover more as we continue to research before Election Day. The communities who choose to vote on the measure don’t necessarily have solid plans to invest in Internet access infrastructure, but if they want to work with a private sector partner or on their own, they must first hold a referendum. 

It's Logical

As Election Day approaches, we anticipate more editorials expressing support; local communities are tired of waiting for better connectivity. As stated by the editors here:

Ballot issues 1A and 2A, respectively, allow local governments to investigate the feasibility of providing broadband services as a public utility or as part of a public-private partnership with taxpayer support for infrastructure.

That is logical, because most of us think of the Internet exactly as an essential utility, right along with electricity, gas and water.

The need is obvious. County voters, vote “yes.” Dolores voters, check the “yes” boxes on both 1A and 2A.

Loveland On The Trail Of Better Connectivity

Loveland, Colorado, was one of nearly 50 communities that voted to opt out of SB 152 last fall. Ten months later, they are working with a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to assess current infrastructure and determine how best to improve connectivity for businesses and residents.

Examining Assets, Analyzing Options

According to the Request for Proposals (RFP) released in April, the city has some of its own fiber that’s used for traffic control. Loveland also uses the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) fiber network but wants to enhance service all over the community, focusing on economic development, education, public safety, healthcare, and “overall quality of life.” Community leaders also want recommendations on which policies would encourage more and better service throughout Loveland.

The city has its own electric, water, sewer, wastewater, and solid waste utilities, so is no stranger on operating essential utilities. Approximately 69,000 people live in the community located in the southeast corner of the state.

They want a network that will provide Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second or Mbps) connectivity on both download and upload (symmetrical) and 10 Gigabit (Gbps) symmetrical connections for businesses and other entities. The network needs to be scalable so it can grow with the community and its needs. Reliability, affordability, and inclusivity are other requirements in Loveland.

Loveland began the process this summer by asking residents and businesses to respond to an online survey. The city will consider all forms of business models from dark fiber to publicly owned retail to open access and public-private partnerships (P3). They should have results by early in 2017, according to the Broadband Initiative Calendar.

Staying Competitive

Fort Collins is just north of Loveland and the two communities continue to expand toward each other. Fort Collins is also taking steps to improve connectivity for residents, businesses, and local government. Just west of Loveland is Estes Park, where the town's broadband initiative is underway and has secured approximately $1.3 million from the state Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). Estes Park will use the funds for engineering design of a broadband utility. With these two adjacent communities taking steps to improve connectivity, Loveland has little choice but to do the same to stay competitive.

Things Are Rockin' In Colorado

We expect to see more activity this election season in Colorado; by last count, 22 towns and counties will hold ballot initiatives to opt out of SB 152. These communities are joining the growing list from the Centennial State who want to reclaim local authority looted by the state legislature 11 years ago when it passed SB 152. Many of these communities don’t have plans in place for projects, but they want the right to make their own decisions.

If the legislature would repeal the state restrictions, local communities would not need to waste taxpayer dollars with expensive referendums that typically pass in the 70 - 90 percent range. Towns and counties in Colorado, however, are not waiting for Denver to act; they are taking matters into their own hands.

Ammon Model In Louisiana? Ask The Voters!

Voters in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, will get the chance in December to decide if they wish to invest in a fiber-optic network, reports the Advocate.

Louisiana Looks At Idaho

This past summer, Parish President Kevin Couhig presented the plan to create a new parish fiber optic utility. His plan includes an open access network to draw competition that will be based on the Software-Defined Network (SDN) of the Ammon model:

Couhig’s plan would get away from single Internet service providers, which control speed, innovation, bandwidth, data limits and price. Instead, the ISPs would compete through the parishwide network. Each consumer could control what they would have available through the open access such as internet, phone, video and interactive gaming.

Parish staff worked with a consulting firm for several months to develop a feasibility study, define costs, and draft a network design. They estimate the network would cost a little over $5.7 million and would require about 107 fiber miles. In December voters will decide whether or not to accept a plan to fund the network with a 4-mill property tax levy for five years, beginning in 2017. On September 14th, the Parish Council voted to allow the question to be placed on the December ballot.

Redefining Infrastructure In The Bayou

The city will still need to determine how the state's barriers will affect their plans. West Feliciana Parish is 30 miles north of Baton Rouge and home to approximately 16,500 people. There are about 426 square miles in the parish, which is located along the Mississippi River. In July, when Couhig presented the detailed study to the Parish Council, he expressed his motivation for the project:

“As important, we will bring to our residents economical, modern services in entertainment, data, community and health service capabilities that will be on par with any place in the world…To be successful, we need to grow and maintain all of our types of infrastructure, but in the modern world, that must include broadband capability.”

For more details on Ammon’s SDN model, listen to Christopher talk to Bruce Patterson, the city’s Technology Director, in episode #207 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. You can also check out our video for more on Ammon:

Colorado Communities Opting Out: The List Grows...and Grows...and Grows

Recently, Christopher spoke with Glenwood Springs, Colorado, about their venture into providing high-quality Internet access for the community. They were, to our knowledge, the first Colorado community to pass a referendum reclaiming local telecommunications authority. The voters in Glenwood Springs chose to opt out of SB 152 and reclaim that authority in 2008.

Last fall was a banner season for local communities deciding to no longer be limited by the state restrictions borne out of big cable lobbying. More than four dozen municipalities and counties voted on the issue and all of them passed, many with huge margins. In the spring of this year, nine more towns joined the fray, including Mancos, Fruita, and Orchard City. There are also over 20 counties and number of school districts that have taken the issue to voters and voters responded overwhelmingly saying, “YES! WE WANT LOCAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS AUTHORITY!”

Most of these communities have not expressed an intent to invest in publicly owned infrastructure, but a few places are engaged in feasibility studies, are raising funding, or even in the midst of projects. For most of them, the question of autonomy was the overriding issue - local communities want to be the ones to make the decisions that will impact them at home.

The Colorado Municipal League (CML) has assembled a list of municipalities that have held referendums on the question of 2005's SB 152 and whether or not to reclaim local authority. They list each community’s election by date and include the language of their ballot questions. Some community listings provide the percentage of pro and con votes. You can download the PDF of the list from the CML’s page created specifically for the local telecommunications authority question.

Wasted Dollars, Wasted Time

Referendums are costing each community dollars they could spend on important services. In 2015, the referendum in Fort Collins cost taxpayers more than $60,000. Those are precious dollars that could be dedicated toward a feasibility study, a school district technology program, or some other program designed to improve their quality of life.

Cities and towns are not alone in reclaiming local authority. Here is the list of counties that have passed the referendum, opting out of SB 152 restrictions:

Archuleta County Clear Creek County Custer County
Delta County Gilpin County Gunnison County
Huerfano County Jackson County La Plata County
Lake County Moffat County Ouray County
Park County Pitkin County Rio Blanco County
Routt County San Juan County San Miguel County
Summit County Washington County Yuma County

We’re not sure what it will take for the Colorado Legislature to see the light and strike SB 152 from the books but we hope they open their eyes soon. We think Colorado will be an epicenter of change and we will be watching.

Colorado Bill Aims To Hinder Opt-Out, Restrict Local Authority Even More

When local elected officials in Colorado put the issue before constituents last fall, voters in almost 50 communities chose overwhelmingly to reclaim local telecommunications authority. Colorado's state law that strips away local authority, SB 152, permits opt-out through referendum. Referendums are expensive for local communities, but at least they are a way to reclaim the power to decide their own future. 

That ability to opt out will get more expensive and more burdensome if a new bill becomes law. Even though the state removed local authority with SB 152, this bill demonstrates that the legislature can still find a way to strip away more local control when big corporate providers feel threatened.

Local Leaders Concerned

SB 136, sponsored by Kerry Donovan, was introduced on March 4th under the guise of "modernizing" the dreaded SB 152. The bill is now waiting for a hearing in the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. According to the Aspen Daily News, Pitkin County Commissioners are wary of the bill's consequences. So are we. Ninety-two percent of Pitkin County voters approved the opt-out of SB 152 last November, thereby reclaiming authority. The county has already completed a needs assessment and is obtaining bids for telecommunications infrastructure; they don't want this bill to derail their efforts.

Kara Sillbernagel, Pitkin County analyst, shared her interpretation with the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC):

...[A] concern is SB 136 could open the door to potential litigation in the opt-out process.


Silbernagel added that, in her opinion, the language complicates the issue away from the simple opt-out solution, and introduces terms which have left governments that opted out “feeling vulnerable.”

“[Concerns are that] it actually seems to be more restrictive for counties moving forward,” she said.

"Modernized" Language = "Modernized" Barriers

Among other changes, the proposed bill requires local governments to give a 60-day notice to private providers if an SB 152 opt-out question will be on the ballot. Local governments are already required to provide notice when a new measure is to be included on a ballot; this creates an additional requirement for measures related to broadband.

The bill also mandates that, prior to the election, a local community must develop and publicize a detailed plan as to what types of services it intends to offer, where the services would be offered, projected revenues, projected expenses, and why the municipality or its partner is seeking to offer those services. If a municipality seeks to work with a private sector partner, the requirement that they release this type of information will make any potential partner think twice. Competitors that have access to such data have an edge before the project has permission to commence.

There also appears to be considerable confusion in the bill's language regarding the term "services." Fiber, wireless, direct, indirect, video, voice? The ambiguity is off-putting for any community and potential partner hoping to offer connectivity where the big corporate providers won't go while also avoiding legal challenges. How can a community create a plan that does not run afoul of the law if the details of the law are clouded in mystery?

This section of the bill will increase the burden it places on local government. It will increase costs to communities early in the process, extend the timetable for proposed projects, and make local governments and their partners vulnerable to litigation from deep-pocketed incumbent providers. A legal challenge can stop a proposed project in its tracks simply by asserting that a business plan is ill-defined.

From the Aspen Daily News artice:

Commissioner Patti Clapper said the bill sounded like blowback from industry due to so many jurisdictions voting to opt-out of SB-152.

“It almost seems like … a way for industry to come in from the back door and nail us the other way around,” she said.

A Simple Solution

The bill attempts to remove barriers that prevent communities from entering into public private partnerships. The only barriers in Colorado are those put in place by SB 152. Rather than toying with unnecessary changes that make the barrier more restrictive, the best option is to repeal SB 152 and let local communities decide for themselves how best to solve their connectivity needs.

Durango's Dark Fiber Fosters Wi-Fi Freebie

Last fall, Durango joined a number of other Colorado communities that voted to reclaim local telecommunications authority. This January, the city began using its fiber resources to partner with a private provider and offer free Wi-Fi along the downtown corridor.

The move is one step in the city's plan to optimize use of its fiber resources. At the moment, Wi-Fi appears to be the center point of that plan, with special attention focused on increasing competition so residents and businesses will benefit with lower prices and more choice. From a January article in the Durango Herald:

Some rural residents with slow Internet also should have more service options by the end of the year, courtesy of CenturyLink, SkyWerx, AlignTec and BrainStorm.

“A lot of people are working on it. ... In certain geographies we’re going to see overlapping solutions,” said Roger Zalneraitis, director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.

Durango has leased dark fiber for over 20 years and operates its own I-Net for municipal and La Plate County facilities. The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments (SWCCOG) has been developing an open access regional fiber network since 2010, funded through local communities and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. The SWCCOG is now working with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance to determine if and where there are gaps in the fiber network.

Due to the expense of fiber optic lines, the difficult topography, and the remote locations of some La Plata county residents, community leaders are looking at microwave wireless as a way to deliver Internet access to a number of people.

Local video on the Wi-Fi install:

Colorado's Unique Environment of Local Collaboration - Community Broadband Bits Episode 178

A few weeks back, Colorado voters overwhelmingly chose local authority and community networks over the status quo Internet connections. Approximately 50 local governments had referenda to reclaim authority lost under the anti-competition state law originally called SB 152 that CenturyLink's predecessor Qwest pushed into law in 2005.

This week, Virgil Turner and Audrey Danner join us to discuss what is happening in Colorado. Virgil is the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose and last joined us for episode 95. Audrey Danner is the Executive Director of Craig Moffat Economic Development and co-chair of the Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference. We previously discussed Mountain Connect in episode 105 and episode 137.

In our discussion, we cover a little bit of history around SB 152 and what happened with all the votes this past election day. We talk about some specific local plans of a few of the communities and why Colorado seems to have so many communities that are developing their own plans to improve Internet access for residents, anchor institutions, and local businesses.

Over the course of this show, we also talked about Rio Blanco's approach, which we discussed previously in episode 158. We also discuss Steamboat Springs and previously covered that approach in episode 163.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

In New England, Greenfield Votes For a Municipal Network Too

It wasn’t just Colorado cities and counties along with Iowa communities voting this week. Back east, Greenfield, Massachusetts also rushed to the polls to support local Internet choice.

Greenfield is planning to use a combination of fiber and Wi-Fi to deliver services - an approach that has had limited success in the past due to the technical limitations of Wi-Fi. 

The Vote

At Tuesday’s Annual Meeting, residents voted on the future of high-speed Internet access in the town. The referendum, the first step in creating a municipal broadband network, saw a landslide victory. 

The people gave a resounding message that they wanted to pursue a network: 3,287 people voted in favor; only 696 were opposed. According to the local paper the Recorder, this nonbinding ballot referendum allows the town to create a nonprofit to run the municipal broadband network. 

Currently there is a pilot program on two streets – giving residents a taste of community-owned high-speed Internet. This pilot program started in mid-October and provides free Wi-Fi on Main and High Streets. If voters had rejected the ballot referendum, the town would have ended the pilot program and only created an institutional network for the municipal and school buildings. Now, with the referendum passed, they can implement the plan for high-speed Internet access.

The Plan for Broadband

When the state built a middle-mile network running through the cities of Greenfield and Holyoke, the mayor contacted Holyoke’s municipal light plant to find out how to best utilize the opportunity. Holyoke is now the Internet Service Provider for City Hall and the police station. These will then serve as Internet access nodes for Greenfield’s new network.

The community's goal is to construct a 60-mile hybrid fiber-wireless network throughout the entire town by the end of 2016. The network will have a 10 Gigabit-per-second fiber backbone.  Now that the referendum passed, the project will go out to bid and construction will begin in early January. The total cost is estimated at about $5 million – the town intends to use revenues from the network to pay for the construction.

In an October, Mayor Martin described the community's initiative to replace the old infrastructure the community now relies on:

Martin said the goal of the project is to improve the business climate and quality of life in Greenfield. He said he wants everyone who wants high-speed Internet to be able to afford it.

We have yet to see a robust Wi-Fi network that actually sees meaningful adoption by households because the technology has such limited range and variable reliability. The result is that very few people are willing to pay for Wi-Fi connectivity, especially as they have come to expect higher capacity connections than a shared Wi-Fi network can deliver. We will be watching to see how Greenfield develops.

Decorah and Vinton Voters Choose Munis for Better Connectivity in the Corn Belt

Colorado may have been the epicenter of local authority disruption this election cycle but two Iowa elections were also worth exploring.

Decorah Chooses Muni Authority

In Decorah, the community of 8,000 received awards for its innovative use of the city's dark fiber network, MetroNet. A community led effort, Decorah FastFiber, convinced community leaders to ask voters if they want to expand the use of that fiber. Voters decided 1,289 to 95 to give the city the authority to establish a municipal telecommunications network.

Decorah's ballot question specifically asked if that authority should extend to video, voice, telephone, data, and all other forms of telecommunications and cable communications, reports the News. A second ballot question, which passed with similar results, asked voters to authorize the city to establish a Board of Trustees for the utility.

Vinton Trusts Its Electric Utility

Vinton, home to approximately 5,200 people, voted overwhelmingly to form a telecommunication utility. The community, located northwest of Cedar Rapids, voted 792 to 104 to put the community's municipal electric utility in charge of the initiative. This matter had been voted on twice previously - in  both cases the community had voted against the proposition. 

A comparatively large number of communities in Iowa have invested in their own Internet networks but Mediacom and other providers like CenturyLink have fought hard to prevent municipalities from passing the necessary referendum to build a network. This year, we had no reports of opposition from incumbent operators, a remarkable change that frankly leaves us puzzled but hopeful nonetheless. 

Congrats to both Decorah and Vinton for reclaiming digital self-determiniation. We don't know if either one has immediate plans to build a network or what model they may use but now they have full authority to explore all options.

Voters Quiet the Drums At the Polls in Colorado

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. 

Staggering Approval

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.

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