Nov. 5, 2014 Update: Boulder voters overwhelmingly approved the measure to give their city authority to create municipal internet.
As truly high speed Internet access becomes more and more crucial for businesses and consumers, cities are stepping up to provide their citizens with the next generation fiber networks that the incumbent commercial ISPs are simply unwilling to build. But in the case of Boulder, Colorado, despite the fact that nearly 100 miles of high speed fiber already lie beneath its streets, the city is barred from investing in and expanding the network to the wider public. That’s because in Colorado, as well as in dozens of other states, prohibitive state laws—laws practically written by the large ISPs—block municipalities from building or operating competing networks.
On November 4th, voters in Boulder, as well as Yuma County in eastern Colorado, will decide whether to exempt themselves from the restrictive state law and give their cities the freedom to control the future of their own broadband infrastructure. With no vocal opponents, the referendums seem likely to pass.
For Boulder, the choice could not be more obvious. With the highest startup density and growth of any metropolitan area, the ability for Boulder to independently invest in and expand high speed Internet is integral to maintaining its ascendancy as a hotbed for new business ventures. “We’re in competition to attract and retain the highest quality employers and the highest quality talent,” said a spokesperson for Boulder Chamber of Commerce.
The law currently restricting both Boulder, and the much smaller Yuma County, from taking Internet access into their own hands—The "Competition in Utility and Entertainment Services” bill (or SB 152, as it’s commonly called)—passed in the state senate in 2005, and precludes municipal governments from providing broadband services to its citizens. Under the bill, however, a city may seek an exemption under the law and reestablish local control over broadband policy through a referendum. So far, only a few other other Colorado cities have done so. The city of Longmont, just 15 miles north of Boulder, opted out of SB 152 in 2011 and started construction in August to deploy fiber networks across the city. Its new service will be available to consumers November 3.
Just as ISPs lobbied hard to enact these anti-municipal broadband laws, they have fought equally hard against efforts to overturn them. Longmont first sought an exemption from SB 152 in 2009, but failed after telecom companies spent $192,228 to defeat the referendum, compared to only $95 from proponents of the measure. In 2011, Longmont tried again and the referendum passed, despite a record $300,000 campaign by Comcast to prevent it.
Comcast doesn’t seem to be putting money against the Boulder referendum, but has made its opposition to the measure known, writing to Boulder’s local newspaper, "Comcast does not believe that government-owned networks are a good use of municipal funds in areas where the private market is already providing services.” Yet the services they provide are not only slower and more expensive than what municipal gigabit networks pose to offer, the ISP also routinely ranks lower in customer satisfaction than any other company in the industry.
Thus, Comcast’s response isn’t surprising, especially considering its interest in maintaining near-monopoly power in the broadband market. As the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable shows, large ISPs would much rather eliminate potential rivals through acquisitions and legislative restrictions than have to face competition.
As we’ve said before, municipal broadband networks provide consumers with alternatives in markets desperately in need of competition. With the US lagging behind its industrialized peers in fiber deployment and growth, we need to use every tool possible to generate competition in broadband markets and give consumers and businesses the high-speed broadband access they need to thrive in the Internet economy.
Municipalities like Boulder deserve the right to build fiber networks for its citizens when ISPs won’t. We stand behind Colorado voters next Tuesday when they head to the polls to vote “yes.”