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Why Colorado Towns Have To Vote If They Want Better Broadband

Better Internet for Yuma County
A brochure urges residents of the towns of Wray and Yuma, and Yuma County, to vote to override a Colorado Senate Bill prohibiting their municpalities from providing broadband infrastructure.

In 2005, under pressure from the telecom company Qwest (now CenturyLink), Colorado legislators passed a bill prohibiting towns, cities and counties in the state from getting into the cable and broadband business, or even constructing or operating facilities for such services.

Yet as mainstream Internet providers have failed to provide affordable high-speed service in many parts of the state, many municipalities are itching to do just that. That's why citizens are seeing efforts to override this law, called Senate Bill 05-152 [.pdf], on their November 2014 election ballots in at least seven Colorado towns and counties.

In 2005, when Senate Bill 05-152 passed, many worried about its ultimate effects, but they weren't yet apparent. The iPhone didn't exist. DVDs still came through the mail. There was no Kindle.

Now, Americans learn, shop and conduct business over the Internet as a part of daily life. Areas still lacking affordable access to high-speed connectivity are at risk of falling behind in business, education, even health care.

"You can no longer say, 'oh well yeah, I'm living in rural Colorado, so I'm just going to forget about being connected to the rest of the world,'" said Nate Walowitz, the Regional Broadband Coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Many rural businesses now rely on Internet access, from precision farming to mining to rural hospitals uploading large images for analysis.

"I'll drive 30 miles into the next big town to get [Internet], that's just not an acceptable answer anymore," said Walowitz.

In many cases, towns that have hoped to get reliable, affordable broadband from conventional providers have been rebuffed. The cost to bring such high-speed connectivity to rural areas is high, and many providers can make more money, more easily, in urban areas.

Normally in such a situation, the city or county might step in and try to support efforts to bring in broadband access, maybe by putting in infrastructure. But the law prohibits them from doing so without a citizen override.

"Let's say a large cattle feedlot wanted to come into Yuma County in a place that is very remote where we have no fiber or service at all. Our county can't even help them by putting up a tower. So not only can we not build our own network, we cannot put up towers," said Darlene Carpio, director of the Yuma County Economic Development Corporation.

This November, the towns of Boulder, Cherry Hills Village, Red Cliff, Wray and Yuma are seeking an override, as are Rio Blanco and Yuma counties. The trend might be said to be sweeping across Colorado – the towns of Montrose, Centennial, and Longmont have all passed overrides previously.

The town of Longmont is perhaps an inspiration for some of these municipalities dreaming about providing better access to their residents and businesses. In 2011, uninspired by the slower cable and DSL offerings of conventional telecommunications companies, the town passed an override of the bill.

Longmont followed up by laying its own fiber system, and will soon offer city-provided fiber optic service at speeds up to one gigabit per second for uploading and downloading for residential customers. That high of a speed is not currently available through Comcast and CenturyLink, the two service providers in Longmont.

The need for rural areas to have high-speed connectivity has not escaped the notice of state regulators. In the 2013-2014 legislative session, a package of bills incentivizing companies to provide high-speed Internet connections passed and was signed into law.

Yet many towns and counties are not waiting for those incentives to bring providers to them. Across the state, these rural areas have big plans and high hopes to improve broadband access for their residents and businesses. An override of Senate Bill 05-152 this election is just the first step in a longer journey toward better connectivity.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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