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New Bill Could Make Colorado Friendly State for Municipal Broadband
Earlier this month, a new Colorado bill was introduced that, if passed, would rid the state of a law designed to protect monopoly Internet service providers (ISPs) from competition.
SB-183, titled “Local Government Provision Of Communications Services,” seeks to gut a law Big Telecom pushed state lawmakers to pass in 2005. That law, known as SB-152, prevented any of Colorado’s 272 municipalities from building and operating their own telecommunication infrastructure unless local voters first passed a referendum to “opt out.”
End of ‘the Qwest Law’?
Known also as “the Qwest law,” Qwest (now Lumen but more recently CenturyLink), with the help of Comcast, leaned on legislative allies to pass SB-152 to protect their monopoly profits. On our Community Broadband Bits podcast, Ken Fellman and Jeff Wilson, prominent telecom attorneys, recount how lobbyists for the monopoly ISPs were instrumental in pushing two false, but effective, narratives we’ve seen many times before: that SB-152 only sought to “level the playing field” so that private companies could compete with municipally run networks, and that SB-152 “protected” Coloradoans from irresponsible local governments, as if there were no such things as local elections.
But, if passed, the new proposed legislation (SB-183) – co-sponsored by a bipartisan-ish group of state legislators (10 Democrats and 2 Republicans) – would neuter SB-152 and allow local communities to decide for themselves if they wanted to pursue municipal broadband without needing special permission from the state.
121 Colorado Communities Have Opted Out of Anti-Muni Broadband Preemption Law
More than 121 Colorado cities and towns have now opted out of SB152, a 17-year old state law backed by telecom monopolies greatly restricting the construction and funding of community broadband alternatives.
And the trend shows no sign of slowing down.
Colorado’s SB152, passed in 2005 after lobbying pressure by Comcast and Centurylink, prohibits the use of municipal or county money for broadband infrastructure without first holding a public vote.
Election Day 2022: Broadband on the Ballot
As voters went to the polls yesterday, broadband-focused initiatives and candidates could be found up and down the ballot all across the country.
Alabama voters cast their ballots to decide on a state Constitutional amendment known as the Broadband Internet Infrastructure Funding Amendment. The measure sought to amend the state's constitution "to allow local governments to use funding provided for broadband internet infrastructure under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and award such funds to public or private entities."
That measure passed, garnering a “Yes” vote from nearly 80 percent of Alabama voters. With 73 percent of the vote counted late last night, 922,145 “Yes” votes had been tallied with 251,441 “No” votes.
Also in Alabama, Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell won her re-election bid to represent Alabama’s 7th congressional district. Sewell, whose district covers a large swath of the Alabama Black Belt, “spent much of her past two years in office bringing American Rescue Plan Act funds to rural Alabama, dedicated to healthcare, broadband access and infrastructure building,” as noted by The Montgomery Advertiser.
The Centennial State is not listed as one of 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that erect barriers to municipal broadband because nearly every community that had a vote has passed it to nullify it. But more communities had to go through that unnecessary process yesterday due to the law known as SB-152 that bans local governments in the state from establishing municipal broadband service absent a referendum.
Colorado Springs Embarks on Citywide Network with Ting as Anchor Tenant
Back in January, Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) announced it was going to begin building a city-wide, open access fiber network owned, and that Ting would be its first anchor tenant. Construction of the network is expected to begin in the third quarter of this year, with a target completion date of 2028 (originally planned for fifteen years). The network will provide multi-gigabit service to roughly 200,000 homes as well as city businesses and anchor institutions. It’s still early in the process, but projections at the moment have the utility spending $45 million to $100 million a year for the next six years to complete the project. The first phase will see 225 new fiber route miles laid.
CSU Has Long Used Fiber
For thirty years CSU has built fiber across Colorado’s second-largest city. CSU’s dramatic expansion of this existing network directly benefits the utility by reducing overall costs, improving infrastructure monitoring, and boosting overall utility network resiliency. And it all will come with no rate increases to CSU electric customers.
But the company’s decision to lease access to this fiber expansion also directly aids the local community by lowering consumer utility costs, and delivering universal, affordable, high-speed Internet access. It’s a significant boon to Colorado’s second largest city that’s now an attractive, high-tech growth market.
Golden Opportunity for Municipal Fiber Network in Colorado
A month ago, President Biden visited the city of Golden, Colorado to tout his Build Back Better Agenda, which includes a bipartisan infrastructure package that invests $65 billion to expand access to high-speed Internet connectivity. But years before that, city officials had already been preparing for the possibility of building a municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network.
Although the President didn’t say it during his remarks after a tour of Golden’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the city’s desire to offer municipal Internet service is a prime example of what the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan envisioned: investing in local, publicly-owned community broadband networks.
Though this city of approximately 20,000 is served by CenturyLink and Comcast Xfinity, along with a handful of other smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs), city councilors agree that a municipal FTTH network would be a boon for business and offer more affordable and reliable options to residents.
It’s an idea that has garnered the support of voters when five years ago a referendum was passed authorizing the city to opt out of the Colorado state law (SB 152) that bars local governments in the Centennial State from establishing municipal Internet service. Golden is one of over 150 communities in the state to have opted out of SB 152 since the law was passed 15 years ago; most notably Loveland, Fort Collins, and Estes Park, all of whom are building out municipal fiber networks in the Front Range region.
The Number of Colorado Cities Restoring Local Authority Continues to Grow
The Centennial State has been a leader over the last fifteen years in showcasing how communities can take back local authority from restrictive state laws which place barriers in front of municipal broadband efforts. More than 150 communities in the state have done so since the 2005 law went into effect, and cities like Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins continue to show the value of investing in local broadband infrastructure and bringing the service residents, businesses, and community anchor institutions need.
Cortez, Colorado (pop. 8,700) is the latest municipality to join the club. In a referendum last month, residents raised their hands to opt out of SB 152, with 78 percent in favor.
Afterwards, former Mayor Karen Sheek remarked that “To move forward on finding solutions to improve Internet service for our community, we need the exemption. It is the next natural step." Cortez General Services Director Rick Smith said that broadband service remains weak outside the "downtown corridor, in schools, libraries and government offices."
The city already operates an I-Net for public facilities, businesses, and anchor institutions (listen to Christopher talk with General Services Director Rick Smith on the podcast about it).
What's next for the city remains to be seen, but others in the state are forging ahead. Four other communities - Berthoud (pop. 7,200), Mead (4,600), Johnstown (15,000), and Milliken (7,200) - have banded together together to perform a survey of residents as a prelude to taking next steps. Berthoud opted out of the preemption law last November (along with Denver and Englewood) while Johnstown did so in April 2020 and Mead opted out in the fall of 2019.
Cortez, Colorado to Vote On Whether to Restore Local Authority
Cortez is the latest community in the state of Colorado to decide whether to opt out of SB 152, which has since passage in 2005 has preempted local authority and prevented communities from building publicly owned telecommunications infrastructure and offering retail service.
The community (pop. 8,500) is located in Montezuma County in the southwest part of the state, just north of Mesa Verde National Park. As first reported in The Journal at the end of January and subsequently approved unanimously by the City Council in the middle of February, a ballot measure later this spring will give city residents the option to restore the municipality’s ability to offer retail Internet service to business and households themselves.
From the ballot flyer provided to residents by the city:
A voter-approved exemption from SB 152 would restore local independence and ability to evaluate all possibilities for next generation broadband services in the City of Cortez and our communities. An exemption supports local choice and options, allowing citizens to make the best decisions based on the needs of our own individual communities, without raising taxes.
It further explains the realities of the limitations imposed by SB 152:
Without such approval, the law limits the ability of Colorado local governments to provide a wide spectrum of services, including: free Internet service in city libraries, parks and community centers; leveraging government infrastructure and partnering with private businesses to provide affordable and high-speed Internet service throughout the entire community; [and] direct provision of broadband services by municipal governments where needed.
A Chance to Build on Past Success
Fired Up About Fiber on The Front Range
Over 140 municipalities in Colorado have opted out of a state law (SB-152) that prevents local governments from investing in broadband infrastructure. With overwhelming support from voters on Election Day last month, Denver, Berthoud, and Englewood became the most recent Colorado communities to bail on SB-152 in the 15 years since Qwest (now CenturyLink) and Comcast successfully lobbied for passage of the anti-local authority bill designed to protect their profits.
While Denver, Berthoud, and Englewood residents ponder next steps, a number of other Colorado communities have already built, or are in the process of building, municipally-owned broadband networks, the most successful example being the NextLight Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network in Longmont.
NextLight, which began building its award-winning FTTH network in 2014, now offers Longmont’s 90,000 residents access to gigabit (1,000 Mbps) service and has surpassed a 50% take rate.
Three other communities in the Front Range region of Colorado are now on the front lines of building municipal broadband networks.
Loveland, a city of 76,700 situated in a 25.5 square mile valley at the entrance to Big Thompson Canyon, opted out of SB-152 with 82% voter approval in 2015, a year after Longmont began building its fiber network 17 miles south of the “gateway to the Rockies.”
Over the past five years, the Loveland Water and Power Department has been planning, and now building, its own Pulse fiber network.
To finance the project, city officials opted to issue $95.5 million in bonds. The bonds are backed by Loveland’s electric utility, which serves 37,500 residential and commercial accounts.
Colorado’s Qwest Law: A Decade and a Half Later - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 415
It’s been 15 years since Colorado passed SB 152, the state law intended to restrict communities from building and managing their own broadband networks. A great deal has happened since: more than 140 communities have voted to opt out of the law, and networks like Longmont’s NextLight have been success stories in municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).
In this episode Christopher talks to Ken Fellman and Geoff Wilson. Ken and Geoff were at the heart of the story back in 2005. They describe how Qwest (now CenturyLink) along with Comcast used legislative allies to introduce the anti-local authority bill aimed at protecting their profits. They share how the monopoly Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) lobbyists helped push two false narratives that we’ve seen many times before: that the bill sought to “level the playing field” so that private companies could compete with municipally run networks, and that SB152 “protected” Coloradoans from irresponsible local governments.
Christopher, Ken, and Geoff unpack the nuance of such arguments, which monopoly ISPs have used time and time again around the country, that place prohibitive burdens on local actors. They also cover developments over the last decade and a half, and talk about how while SB 152 had a negative impact on the development of municipal networks and broadband infrastructure in the short-term, we might consider how the long-term has shown how so many Colorado communities were compelled to action.
We’ve covered Colorado’s SB 152 a number of times in the past. Recently, the first phase of middle-mile network Project Thor turned on, introducing redundancy and bringing cost savings with it. Glenwood Springs, the first community to opt out, is in the process of extended its own FTTH network citywide.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Glenwood Springs Continues Its Tradition of Looking Ahead With Fiber Network Expansion
Lighting up the first phase of middle-mile network Project THOR isn’t the only good news coming out of northwest Colorado recently. Glenwood Springs, a city of 10,000 forty-five minutes north of Aspen, is once again looking to secure the future of its information infrastructure.
In a recent 6-1 decision, the city council voted to replace and expand the reach of its existing fiber system, which currently serves businesses and a select number of residents. The resulting network of 150 miles is projected to cost around $9 million and take two years to complete. Once done, current users will be switched over with no disruption. The new network will be citywide and have the capacity to handle Glenwood Springs’ 4,800 residences and commercial premises. Hopes are, many will sign up.
Building up a Fiber Legacy
This isn’t the first time Glenwood Springs has taken such initiative. Almost twenty years ago the city had access to speeds below one megabit per second (Mbps) and — after being told by Qwest (now CenturyLink) there were no plans for investment or upgrades — it built its own fiber backbone to community anchor institutions with a wireless overlay to provide service to residential customers. The city later expanded the fiber network to connect businesses and some households and opened up the network for participation by private Internet service providers (ISPs).