Even in 2017 -- in the time of smart phones, speakers and appliances -- access to broadband is still a problem in parts of Colorado. Not every home or business can connect to high speed or reliable internet. In some rural areas, there is no broadband at all.
But in 16 Colorado cities, local leaders are hoping voters will let them explore options for providing broadband internet service.
“It’s not just a matter of being able to email or surf the web,” said Kevin Bommer, the deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League, which advocates on behalf of cities and towns at the state capitol. “This is commerce and industry, it’s medicine, it’s schools. And if you can’t get connected, you’re staying behind.”
Most consumers are largely limited to getting internet from a handful of major players – including Comcast and CenturyLink. In rural areas, the big companies don’t provide service, leaving people left with nothing. If local municipalities want to get into the game, state law requires a vote of the people.
“That doesn’t necessarily put fiber in the ground or light it up, but it allows them to start investing public-private partnerships and other options,” said Bommer.
The city of Longmont took the leap. In 2011 and 2013, it held successful votes to allow the city to install fiber for residents and businesses throughout the city and it’s now providing service. Customers are signing up, which helps pay off the bond used to fund the installation.
“We have a great opportunity to share Longmont’s story just down the road 30 miles,” said Colin Garfield, who is working on a similar initiative for Fort Collins.
Garfield is on the Fort Collins citizen’s broadband committee and got involved after he was laid off as a GIS cartographer.
“It’ll create competition in a market that currently does not have any competition and let the money stay local,” he said. “This is our one shot at doing this.”
The city already passed a measure to explore its options. Now it’s ready to install its own fiber, but there has been pushback.
“Measure 2B would spend $150 million dollars on broadband with no plan on how to do it,” a TV advertisement proclaims.
The ad is included in a campaign funded in part by a group associated with the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce. The Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association has put more than $100,000 behind it. In addition to the TV ads, the group has sent out flyers and mailers, all critical of the city for wanting to get into the internet business.
While there hasn’t been any polling, proponents think the vote will be close.
The City of Greeley also has a broadband question in front of voters this election. Mayor Tom Norton knows the topic causes friction between cities and telecommunications companies.
“There’s some middle ground in competition, getting a better service and being able to compete and being fair to the company that makes an investment being able to get a return on their investments,” he said.
But even though Greeley isn’t yet asking to build the infrastructure to provide its own broadband service – Norton said the city wants to be able to explore all options.
“The quality of the product and the speed are very important for us in the long run in terms of businesses and economic development,” said Norton. “I find that it’s not good for most businesses.”
While the goal may be low-cost and high-speed service, state lawmakers may soon prevent cities from even attempting this route in the future. The municipal league’s Kevin Bommer hopes that doesn’t happen.
“I fully expect to see legislation that says if you want to have any rural broadband money it will only be done when private sector are able to do it by preempting municipalities,” Bommer said. “We’ll absolutely oppose that legislation.”
“So folks have come to the legislature to say there still has to be a level playing field,” said Democratic House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder. “The private companies are working out when are you competing against us and when (you) are regulating us, and what do those lines look like.”
She added that she doesn’t think local broadband votes are the answer, especially for rural areas.
“A lot of local governments are pursuing this option, whether it ends up solving their community’s needs is left to be determined.”
Becker said the state would still have to step in to provide solutions to rural areas where it’s extremely expensive to install broadband infrastructure. She plans to work on the issue when lawmakers return to the capitol in January.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify that an opposition ad is funded in part by a group associated with the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce not funded directly by the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.