Across Colorado, the failure of existing providers to provide fast, reliable broadband means many counties and towns are investigating other options. One Front Range town, Longmont, is already providing high-speed internet to its citizens at a cost below that of Google Fiber.
Yet in Colorado, in order to offer broadband services, municipalities need to override a 2005 state law. Known as, SB 05-152 [.pdf], the law requires voter approval before a government entity can provide telecommunications services such as broadband.
In the 2014 election, several municipalities and counties voted in favor of an override, including the city of Boulder. Now in 2015, the override trend seems to be sweeping Colorado. Forty-five counties, municipalities and school districts have a broadband override on their ballot.
The ballot language for each measure is nearly identical.
Without increasing taxes by this measure, shall citizens of [CITY/COUNTY] re-establish their City's right to provide all services restricted since 2005 by Title 29, Article 27, Part 1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, specifically described as high speed internet access ("advanced services"), "telecommunications services," and "cable television services," including new and improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies, utilizing community owned infrastructure either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners, to potential subscribers that may include telecommunications service providers, residential or commercial users within the [CITY/COUNTY]?
In other words, across Colorado 17 counties, 26 towns and three school districts (Boulder Valley School District, Colorado Mountain Junior College and Steamboat Springs School District), are thinking about getting involved in some way, big or small, to improve their broadband. And they are asking voters to let them.
The 2005 bill that makes this necessary, passed before iPhones were even invented, is largely viewed as a protectionist measure pushed through by Qwest (now CenturyLink). It prohibits municipalities from offering telecommunications services without first gaining approval from a majority of citizens. Colorado wasn't alone in experiencing this legal push to protect telecom firms; 19 states have laws of some type prohibiting municipalities from getting into the telecommunications business.
State Senator Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge) was one of the original sponsors of the 2005 bill, when she was a state representative. Jahn said protectionism wasn't the law's intent. At the time, she said, towns were thinking about getting into the broadband business, but it was costly.
"It literally was, you know what, the voters need to be protected," said Jahn. By requiring municipalities to get voter approval first, the bill is doing its job, she said.
"It's doing exactly what my intention was, and that's saying, 'taxpayer, you need to tell us that this is what you want us to do with your dollars from the city or the county.'"
If 2014's votes were any indicator, these overrides tend to pass overwhelmingly. Their passage, however, does not guarantee counties or municipalities will enter into the broadband business. Some, like Boulder, are investigating public-private partnerships. These might involve working with an existing provider to use city- or county-owned fiber optic networks to improve service.
Voter override of the measures does give towns the options to go the route of Longmont, which expanded on an existing town-owned fiber network and is now offering extremely high-speed service to its citizens for very low prices. Other towns that have gone this route include Chattanooga, Tennessee and Bristol, Virginia.
Joanne Hovis, a consultant with CTC Technology and Energy who works across the country with towns looking to improve their broadband options, said even if towns do not enter the business of offering broadband, just the threat of that can create a more competitive environment. That could push existing service providers to offer better services. In today's business environment, high speed Internet is becoming almost as important as electricity was in the early 20th century, Hovis said.
"This is the infrastructure of the future."
Editor's Note: This post was updated October 21, 2015 to increase the number of cities that are voting on a broadband question. This updated count reflects new information [.pdf] released by the Colorado Municipal League.