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Fort Collins Gets City-Owned Broadband Network Off the Ground

Federal funds are coming for broadband expansion, but some local governments, like Fort Collins, Colo., have already been working to build their own city-owned and operated networks.

Fort Collins, Colorado
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It has never been clearer that connectivity is integral to life in 2022, and while federal support is on the table — like funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or the Federal Communications Commission’s new Affordable Connectivity Program — local governments are exploring options to get their own broadband networks off the ground.

Fort Collins, Colo., is a pioneer in city-led efforts to offer residents their own innovative solution: a municipal fiber network. City leaders argue that this solution can deliver higher speeds, lower costs and superior customer service compared to private Internet service providers. While Fort Collins Connexion, the city’s community-owned fiber-to-the-premises network, is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year, the project has been in the works for the past decade.

BUILDING BUY-IN


Fort Collins became interested in creating a citywide fiber network following the 2012 launch of Google Fiber in Kansas City, Mo. According to Fort Collins Senior Economic Manager SeonAh Kendall, this led to Gig-U, a coalition involving the city and Colorado State University. With an abundance of data and research at their fingertips, the group asked, “Why not us?”

Fort Collins was well positioned to embark on this journey because the city already provided electricity and water, so the idea of public-owned utilities was not completely novel for residents, according to former City Manager Darin Atteberry, who oversaw the growth of Fort Collins Connexion until 2021. The trust in the city to operate a utility was already there.

The largest obstacle to getting started was legislative: Colorado SB 152 was a 2005 law preventing communities from offering telecommunications services. Fort Collins needed residents to approve an exemption. When it was put to a vote in 2015, the law was overturned with 83 percent support. Atteberry said it was a true testament to the community’s support of the network. Two years later, the city again asked the community to back broadband by approving a ballot measure that would add telecommunication to the Utility Charter and make a bond of up to $150 million available for the project. The measure passed with 57 percent of the vote, and November 2018 marked the official start of construction.

The community’s involvement was a critical part of this effort, according to Colman Keane, former broadband executive director for Fort Collins Connexion. He said that from the beginning, Fort Collins has had an active citizen base and many community groups and residents interested in advancing broadband in the city.

As the project has evolved, the city maintains transparency on its progress through quarterly and monthly reports. As of December 2021, the take rate — the proportion of potential customers using the service — was at 31 percent, already exceeding the necessary 28 percent rate to pay back the bond. Atteberry expects that rate to “skyrocket” in the next 10 years.

Plus, the project is ahead of schedule, he reported. Fiber construction to the front of every single home is expected to be complete by summer of 2022, and service is expected to be available to all designated locations by the end of the year. The Fort Collins Connexion website offers a construction map to keep residents informed of progress from the design stage to availability of service. Wireless speeds will vary based on the connection method and the Internet-enabled device, as older devices tend to have lower speeds. However, speeds could range from 20MB/s to over 500MB/s.

A COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE


Keane explained that simply bringing competition into the marketplace stimulates other providers in a way that will save households money.

While partnerships with private entities can offer broadband access to a lot of residents, the city’s current Broadband Executive Director Chad Crager, who took over when Keane retired in 2021, said that the issue then is that cities lose control — not only of the revenue produced, but also of the customer experience for constituents. That focus on the customer is something that he said sets the city-operated network apart from incumbents.

“We need to really be offering a three-star Michelin restaurant type of service to our residents, as well as to those who aren’t even our customers …,” Crager said. “We need to treat everybody as if they would be a customer, and that’s the kind of service that I see us providing as we go forward.”

As Atteberry stressed, the ability to provide customer service 24/7/365 is a critical part of creating a positive customer experience for something essential like a utility. With more businesses, schools and health-care institutions operating remotely, people rely on having dependable service and technical support when needed to ensure they can send and receive important information.

Another aspect of what makes this network unique is the emphasis on digital equity.

Crager explained that digital equity strategies for broadband often state that income-qualified households can receive a lower rate, but they then also get lower speeds. Fort Collins’ approach operates with the belief that everyone is entitled to the same high-speed Internet. As such, 6 percent of revenue goes into what is called a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, fund. This capital will allow the city to bridge the gap for those that are income-qualified to pay a lower rate and get the same high-quality connection.

To further close the digital divide, leadership must also think beyond city limits, and Crager said partnerships are vital in doing so. For example, the neighboring city of Loveland, also part of Larimer County, is also putting in broadband. As a result, Crager said, they’re establishing a partnership with the county to address how residents outside of those two cities are being impacted by lower broadband speeds.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic, Kendall noted, when schools and other services went online, the challenge was making sure service was available for areas that were hit hardest. Rather than having to rely on incumbents to provide service in a time of emergency, she said that having this network allowed the city to mobilize quickly to get wireless service where it was needed.

THINKING LONG TERM


As connectivity becomes an increasingly fundamental part of the workforce, education system and economy, Fort Collins Connexion acts as the foundation for where the city may go next, with a growing focus on 5G, the Internet of Things and consumer technology such as smart home products.

Future-proofing the city’s communications with this fiber network required a forward-thinking approach from the start. As Crager explained, the guiding mindset throughout the project was to consider what the Fort Collins region is going to look like in the next decade, and even beyond. The research process was a yearslong methodical undertaking that involved asking many questions and looking at various models to see what would work best for the city.

Planning entailed a lot of conversations with other cities that have entered the world of municipal broadband, from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Wilson, N.C., said Kendall. The extensive research Fort Collins did set the city up for success, as leadership was able to anticipate challenges early on. Because, in spite of this due diligence, with a large infrastructure project, there are likely to be unexpected obstacles.

The city has a working financial model, and when additional costs are incurred, that can require updates to the business plan. Crager said that in working on a high-level summary update to the plan in December 2021, it was found that additional funds will be needed: close to $20 million to build new conduit and serve the increasing number of sites that will need connection. While there were some arising concerns that incumbent broadband providers may use this information to persuade customers to use their service instead, Crager underlined the importance of being transparent with the public, beginning with the updated summary of the business plan.

And just because construction is anticipated to finish this year does not mean the city’s work is done.

“The next steps are where the real magic happens,” said Keane. “This is the opportunity for the community to get behind this network and to figure out what it can do to improve their quality of life.”

Keane says that when a city is providing good service, the take rate grows. The power, however, will come in leveraging the network to go further — from improving the economy to bridging the digital divide. These opportunities will be open for the taking with the creation of this network.

One of the key lessons learned, Atteberry said, is the importance of having city leaders, staff and community aligned on the goals before starting a project like this. It can be a big undertaking to operate even after the network is built because it is a 24/7 operation — billing systems, on-call systems and crew need to be available at all hours of the day in case of technical issues.

Building a utility is an ongoing investment. It was over 50 years ago that Fort Collins decided to provide municipal electric service, which it manages to this day. Atteberry stressed the value of learning from experts and other communities throughout the process.

“I think our story is replicable,” Atteberry said. “And I think it is applicable to many other places throughout the United States.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.