Digital Communities

Greeley and Windsor, Colo., Look for Paths to Broadband — Including Building Their Own Networks

Greeley residents who can download a full movie in 20 seconds live less than two miles from people who would have a hard time sitting through a high definition Netflix movie without it freezing.

by Sara Knuth, Greeley Tribune / July 12, 2018
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(TNS) — Brian Sullivan looked around his home one day and counted 15 devices that were connected to the Internet.

TVs, gaming sets, cellphones, washers, driers, air conditioners and garage door openers were among his devices. It's a number he expects to keep growing.

"And so, they're all using bandwidth," Sullivan, the city's manager of geographic information systems said.

By 2021, according to an analysis by NEO Connect, a Glenwood Springs, Colo.-based broadband consulting firm, more than 30 billion devices — from laptops to cellphones and clothing to cars — will be connected to the Internet. That's 13 devices per person.

Some cities are starting to see the Internet as a utility. Sullivan said it's becoming as important as the city's water and sewer and roads departments.

But as it stands now, according to the firm, Internet service in Greeley and Windsor is inconsistent at best.

In some cases, it looks like this: Greeley residents who can download a full movie in 20 seconds live less than two miles from people who would have a hard time sitting through a high definition Netflix movie without it freezing.

For Greeley and Windsor, which took part in an NEO Connect broadband feasibility study, splitting the $85,000 cost to explore options for broadband, the current state of Internet service poses a question: Should cities intervene to start offering their own Internet services? That's what Sullivan is trying to answer.

How Much Does It Cost?

NEO Connect compiled the current pricing and service offerings for Greeley and Windsor, as well as the city of Longmont's data for comparison.

Comcast service in Greeley and Windsor

  • 15 megabits per second: $29.99
  • 60 megabits per second: $39.99
  • 150 megabits per second: $54.99
  • 250 megabits per second: $69.99
  • 400 megabits per second: $84.99
  • 2,000 megabits per second: $299.95

CenturyLink service in Greeley and Windsor

  • 20 megabits per second: $45
  • 80 megabits per second: $55
  • 140 megabits per second: $65

City of Longmont's NextLight

  • 25 megabits per second: $39.95
  • 1,000 megabits per second: $69.95
  • Charter members: $59.95

"It's a big jump to do that. You have to start up a whole new department and provide the services for everybody," Sullivan said. "So, from Greeley's perspective, we're just dipping our foot in the water to figure out what's the best option."

Windsor Town Manager Shane Hale compared broadband to the railroad lines installed 150 years ago.

"Some got rail lines, some did not," he said. "The ones with rail lines tended to become larger places and thrive economically. And a lot of places without the rail just never had it and continued to miss opportunities year after year."

As other cities move forward with broadband, he said, offering the service — or finding a way to work with companies to improve it — could make that same difference that the rail lines did.

Fort Collins and Loveland are on their way to building their own community-owned broadband systems. And communities that are considering offering their own broadband often look to Longmont, the first city in Colorado to offer its own retail Internet option.

If Windsor doesn't move forward, Hale said, it'll be surrounded by cities that offer gigabit Internet, which is the Federal Communications Commission's definition of the gold standard of service. It means people can upload and download content from the Internet at a rate of 1,000 megabits per second. The residents who have access to the service are the ones who can download a movie in 20 seconds.

As far as NEO Connect can tell, according to the study, not many Greeley and Windsor residents — if any at all — have access to gigabit service under current providers, such as Comcast and CenturyLink.

The company found that although Comcast advertises gigabit service, speed tests of Comcast customers indicated none have access to those speeds.

During a May city council meeting, Diane Kruse of NEO Connect said a map of speeds in Greeley and Windsor, complied by Colorado's Office of Information Technology, is flawed.

The maps, based on advertised speeds, do not always accurately reflect the actual speeds. The maps also are based on census blocks. If one neighbor receives gigabit service, the map will reflect an entire block that has the service, even if other neighbors don't have it.

To get a more accurate picture of coverage in Greeley, NEO Connect asked Comcast to provide that information.

But because of a non-disclosure agreement, Comcast refused, stalling the process to get an accurate picture of service.

For Greeley, tension with Comcast goes back even further. When the company closed Greeley's store after moving employees to a new high-tech location at Centerra in Loveland, officials were concerned about what that would mean for customer service in Greeley.

Sullivan said that issue, on top of availability and prices of high-speed Internet, led the city to ask this question: "OK, what are our options?"

What Do Residents and Providers Think?

In surveys posted on the websites of Greeley and Windsor, 82 percent of the 643 people who responded to the survey said download and upload speeds are too slow. Kruse of NEO Connect, the broadband consulting firm, said the survey most likely was filled out by residents who care passionately about the Internet or have an issue with their current provider. But among those residents, 73 percent said they would support Greeley and Windsor offering gigabit services to residents as a monthly utility.

Still, not everyone wants the government to have a role in Internet service.

"Don't interfere in the market," one resident wrote in a section of the survey. "This is not the role of government."

In a statement, Mark Soltes, CenturyLink's vice president of public affairs for Colorado, said there are risks associated with city-operated broadband.

"It is important for citizens to understand that there are other ways for their municipality to achieve its goals by exploring public-private partnerships with existing Internet service providers, such as CenturyLink," he said. "These creative solutions can bring the technologies communities need and the expertise to run a network, as well as the ability to plan for future upgrades in a dynamic environment where technology changes rapidly, while limiting the financial risk to citizens."

He added that the company is open to working with Greeley to address needs for broadband.

Potential Paths Forward

Sullivan said there are three types of models the city could consider: rely solely on companies to provide service, work with them to make improvements or offer its own service.

If officials decided to work with companies, they could consider providing infrastructure, such as the fiber networks that create gigabit service, and contract with companies.

If the cities offered their own service, it could result in new city departments and be treated like a utility.

Next Steps for Greeley

In a May Greeley City Council meeting, NEO Connect recommended that the city adopt broadband-friendly ordinances and connect with institutions such as schools and hospitals to see if they can form a partnership for offering the services.

Sullivan said by the end of the year, the city's IT department intends to have recommendations for ordinances in front of council members. One option, he said, would be to implement a "dig-once" policy, which would allow workers to install fiber networks at the same time as other projects, such as road repairs. Doing that would help the city save money.

Greeley officials also plan to form a citizen committee and conduct a formal survey. At the end of 2018, he said, the department plans to offer recommendations about how to move forward with broadband.

Next Steps for Windsor

Windsor isn't quite as ready to move forward with a community group, policies or a survey.

Hale said the town's board invited Kruse back to the town for a more in-depth conversation about broadband.

"My board has so many questions," he said.

©2018 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.