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City-Owned ISP Captures Title of Fastest in the Nation

NextLight, a community-owned fiber-optic network ISP in Longmont, Colo., kicked Google Fiber from its top-seeded post and vows to retain its No. 1 rank as neighboring Fort Collins prepares to launch a similar broadband service.

Colorado’s NextLight, a fiber-optic network ISP owned and operated by the city of Longmont, captured the No. 1 spot for the nation’s fastest ISP – unseating Google Fiber from its lofty post, according to PC Magazine’s annual ISP speed rankings contest.

How did David beat Goliath – as well as telecom titans like Verizon’s Fios fiber-optic network and AT&T Fiber?
NextLight, according to the publication's Speed Test, clocked in with a Speed Index of 278.4 compared to Google Fiber’s 237.0. Verizon Fios scored 138.7, while AT&T Fiber settled in at 77.4. 

Longmont’s success can be attributed to several issues, Tom Roiniotis, Longmont’s Power and Communications general manager, told Government Technology

For starters, NextLight was built several years ago as a pure fiber-optic network, rather than having to deal with a combination of both the slower coaxial cable and fiber, he explained. 

Second, Longmont launched its 1 gigabit (1 Gbps) broadband service with a low $49.95 per month charter membership subscription fee, which is still in place more than three years later. And its regular 1 Gbps pricing of $69.95 drops by $10 after the first year and remains at that level to thank customers for their loyalty. Because of the low pricing for its 1 Gbps service, 99 percent of NextLight’s customers opt for the faster speeds rather than the slower 25 Mbps for $39.95 per month the ISP offers, Roiniotis said.

That pricing model may contribute to Longmont’s speed test ranking, Roiniotis said. Rankings for the PC Magazine competition are based on the people who use the publication’s speed test feature.  As a result, if the vast majority of Verizon Fios customers, for example, use the telecom’s slower broadband service because it is more affordable, the overall score for Verizon may be lower than if all the subscribers used its fastest service, Roiniotis explained.

Longmont Power and Communications built NextLight’s fiber-optic broadband system in 2014 with the help of a $43 million bond offering. Today, NextLight holds a 53 percent ISP market penetration in the city. 

Competition Creeping Up in Colorado

Longmont is increasingly facing more competition among municipalities that are interested in building, operating and maintaining their own high-speed network for their citizens and business, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Colorado Municipal League.

Since the 2005 passage of Colorado’s SB 152, which prohibits local governments from owning and operating broadband or telecommunication services with taxpayer dollars, 92 cities and 30 counties have opted out of SB 152, Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League, told Government Technology

For these 122 government agencies, they are free to explore and build their own municipal broadband services. Bommer said most government agencies are choosing a hybrid model that uses public-private partnerships to rollout broadband service to citizens and businesses. 

But a select number are going it alone. Longmont, one of the first Colorado cities to launch a municipal-owned fiber-optic network in 2014, is joined by Glenwood Springs, which has the Community Broadband Network as part of the city’s electric department, and Rio Blanco County which owns an open access municipal fiber network that private ISPs can connect to customers in Rangely and Meeker.

Fort Collins, Estes Park and Loveland, all members of the Platte River Power Authority along with Longmont, are in various stages of pursuing a municipal broadband network. Fort Collins, for example, recently floated a $142 million bond offering to pay for its fiber-optic network. The city is currently requesting proposals from contractors to assist in building the network.

“Fort Collins is the latest and biggest,” Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said. “They are all doing it because the incumbent providers offer services that are too slow, unreliable or expensive ... sometimes all three. And even if the existing providers are offering decent services in some parts of town, the vast majority of communities do not see a path to universal high-quality Internet access unless they build it themselves.”

Fort Collins' Big Effort

Fort Collins plans to offer its residents high-speed Internet access, telephone service and video, explained Mike Beckstead, chief financial officer of the city.

“We will be a full-service provider and do this within the Light and Power utility,” he said.

Like Longmont, the city of Fort Collins will also build, operate and maintain its fiber-optic network. And Beckstead said he has Longmont’s Roiniotis to thank for providing a slew of information during his city’s research phase and willingness to help the municipality understand what works and doesn’t.

Fort Collins also plans to offer 1 Gbps at $70 per month and needs 28 percent of its residents to subscribe to the service to keep with its base case model of paying its bonds back in 14 years that are used toward building the service. 

He estimates some parts of the city will be able to use the fiber-optic network beginning in the third quarter 2019 and that the construction project will be done by late 2021. 

Although Beckstead doesn’t consider his Fort Collins as a Longmont competitor, Roiniotis jokingly vows to hold onto the title as having the fastest ISP speed in the nation.

“We want to kick their butts,” Roiniotis joked.