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Longmont's Gigabit Internet Is More Than Speed, It's The City's Future

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
An Xfinity van in Longmont's downtown. The city is investing in its own broadband utility which is considerably faster and cheaper than existing options.

Fast Internet is coming. Google Fiber is in Kansas City, Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah. More cities are on the list. But as the rollout of Google Fiber has shown, the train of gigabit-speed broadband does not reach all stops at the same time. There's even a pretty good chance it will skip some entirely.

Big cities are more likely to get high-speed service early. When fast Internet comes from traditional providers, like Comcast, its rollout can be uneven, and available only to businesses, not residents. Gigabit speed, when it is available, is also very expensive.

Unless, that is, you live in Longmont, Colorado.

This mid-sized city of nearly 90,000, about 45 minutes northwest of Denver, is rolling out gigabit speed Internet to everyone who lives here. It's already available in some parts of town, and will be fully available by 2016. The price will make Comcast and CenturyLink (and even Google Fiber) customers drool: it's $49.95 a month.

That's not a promotional deal either, said Tom Roiniotis, the general manager of Longmont Power and Communications, the city-run utility offering the service.

"So we are talking about providing the fastest speeds in the nation at the lowest price in the nation."

One reason for the low price is to get customers on board. Running a new Internet utility isn't cheap. The city already had a lot of existing fiber laid along its utility lines. Connecting the "last mile," the fiber connections to the home, is a big project, so Longmont needs some fast cash. With low prices, it hopes to entice at least a third of its residents into its service, called NextLight, within the first five years.

The bigger reason, though, is that the city is running its Internet service under a different model. It sees high-speed service as an investment in community viability. It wants to offer fast Internet at affordable prices, because, like water or electricity, it sees the service as a building block for a healthy community.

"You buy that new big screen TV, you're not worried about the capacity of your electric service… we want people to feel the same way about their Internet connection," said Roiniotis.  

Longmont is leading the way, but several Colorado towns, from the tech hub of Boulder to the rural farm community of Yuma on the state's eastern plains, are looking at offering some sort of municipal broadband access to their citizens.

Roiniotis calls this "future proofing."

Credit U.S. Department of Energy
U.S. Department of Energy
Cheap, reliable electricity changed America. Many believe the Internet has the same potential if it is made widely available in a reliable, affordable way.

Longmont applied for Google Fiber but didn't get the service. The city is far enough from metro population centers like Denver and Boulder that it isn't exactly top of the list for improved offerings from mainstream providers like Comcast and Century Link.

"At some point, you've got to ask yourself you know, are you, can you afford to wait?" said Roiniotis. Waiting, he added, basically guarantees that Longmont falls behind the tech curve compared to big cities with better options.

"And from an economic development perspective that's not a good place to be."

Joanne Hovis, a consultant from Washington, D.C.-based CTC Technology and Energy, advises states and municipalities looking to improve their broadband options. She said what Longmont is doing is "singular."

Hovis makes the analogy between the rollout of electricity 100 years ago with where the Internet is today.

"We didn't know all the things that we were going to do with [electricity]. When we originally deployed it, it was going to be for electric light," she said.

Then came vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, electric driers. Later, computers and cell phones. Now, electric cars. None of that would have been possible if the country hadn't invested in reliable, affordable electricity for everyone.

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
Forrest Fleming, of Instant Imprints, a printing business in Longmont, is excited to get faster Internet service.

Longmont's NextLight, has been rolling out through the city in phases. One print shop owner, Forrest Fleming, is eagerly awaiting its arrival to his part of downtown.

Fast broadband will cut his download times for big files by at least a third, Fleming said, making him more efficient.

"This took me about 20 minutes to download," Fleming said, pointing to a banner up on his computer screen.

Beyond helping businesses, fast broadband is also becoming a necessity for online learning and the nation's ever-increasing numbers of teleworkers. The medical applications are growing too; Longmont United Hospital plans to use the broadband network to send medical images from ambulances to the hospital in advance of patient arrivals.

Other Colorado towns are taking a cue from Longmont and realizing that they also need to invest in better high-speed service in order to remain competitive. 2014 saw voters in six towns, including Estes Park, and two counties give the go-ahead to invest in some form of municipal broadband. It's a necessary step because Colorado law requires a voter override in order for municipalities to invest in broadband infrastructure.

Fast growing Loveland and Fort Collins are also considering overrides, and may also have initiatives on the 2015 fall ballot.

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