(TNS) -- Voters in Vail, Louisville and 17 other Colorado cities and counties Tuesday voted to take internet service into their own hands in a move that could lead to providing citizens an alternative to the entrenched cable internet provider. Fort Collins voters, who voted to do so two years ago, passed a measure to finance exploration of a city-owned broadband utility.
According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has tracked broadband votes for years, the 19 cities and counties join about 100 others in the state that previously opted out of Senate Bill 152. That bill, passed in 2005, restricts local governments from using taxpayer dollars to build their own broadband networks.
“These cities and counties recognize that they cannot count on Comcast and CenturyLink alone to meet local needs, which is why you see overwhelming support even in an off-year election,” Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in a statement.
Passage, however, doesn’t mean cities and counties will start offering their own broadband internet service.
In 2005, cable and internet providers campaigned to stop cities from offering internet service. At the time, Steve Davis, an executive at Qwest, which is now CenturyLink, told The Rocky Mountain News, “I think it’s inappropriate for public tax dollars to be invested in competitive businesses. At minimum, taxpayers should have the opportunity (to vote on the matter).”
The law passed, but it gave citizens the right to opt out in order to explore the possibility of building a municipal broadband network.
The city of Longmont became the first to do so in 2011, and about three years later, the city began offering internet service at speeds of a gigabit per second, which was much faster than the 20 mbps available from the local cable provider. In August, the city said nearly 90,000 residents can now get gigabit service, which starts at $49.95 a month for residents who sign up within three months of the service launching in their neighborhood.
About 53 percent of the population uses the city’s high-speed internet service, Longmont officials said.
Centennial, which opted out in 2013, is building its own internet backbone in the city and letting private companies such as Ting Internet offer broadband service.
In Fort Collins, which opted out of SB 152 in 2015, voters Tuesday approved the 2B measure to take the next step. The measure allows the city to issue $150 million in securities and debt to pursue the best way to offer broadband to its residents.
But the cable industry isn’t abandoning support of SB 152. Cable providers campaigned heavily against the Fort Collins move, spending more than $256,000 in television and radio ads, according to campaign report filings by Priorities First Fort Collins. More than half of the amount came from a $175,000 contribution from the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, which represents companies such as Comcast.
“The CTA and its members oppose cities, towns and other government entities building, owning and operating broadband networks where existing networks are in place,” said Pete Kirchhof, executive vice president of the association, pointing to the troubled EAGLE-Net Alliance, which was formed in 2010 with $100.6 million in federal bailout funds to provide broadband service to underserved and rural areas. “With or without voter approval, if government-owned networks are going to compete with private entities, there should be a far more level playing field. Governments should not be able to use taxpayer dollars to overbuild existing networks — and then compete against private companies for customers.”
Comparably, the Fort Collins Citizens Broadband Committee collected $8,288.13 and spent $3,021.98 as of Nov. 1, according to the group’s campaign report filing. Funds were spent on ads, consulting fees and yard signs.
According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which tracks broadband developments nationwide, voters in the 19 Colorado cities and counties said yes to municipal broadband by a high margin — at an average yes rate of 83 percent. The institute also estimates that out of Colorado’s more than 270 cities, about 185 have not opted out. However, since 30 counties have opted out, the cities may not need to, said Nick Stumo-Langer, who is with the institute.
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