June 12--Boulder may ask voters to give the city the authority to provide its own high-speed Internet and telecommunications services.
In a memo to the City Council, Boulder officials asked that a ballot measure "affirming" the city's right to offer such services be placed on the November ballot.
There are no specific plans in place to provide such services as a city venture or as a public-private partnership, the memo said. However, state law does not allow cities to offer telecommunications services unless their voters approve an exemption.
The Boulder City Council decided to consider a ballot measure after lobbying efforts to change state law were unsuccessful this session.
Boulder has roughly 100 miles of fiber-optic cable providing high-speed Internet capabilities to city offices, the University of Colorado and the federal labs, but because the city is restricted by state law, Boulder hasn't been able to expand that network to offer similar capabilities to residents or businesses, officials said.
Carl Castillo, Boulder policy adviser, said city officials believe a major reason the city has been passed over by the Google Fiber Initiative is the restrictions in state law.
"The way we look at it is that our taxpayers have paid for these assets, and we're not able to leverage these assets to offer higher-speed Internet at lower cost," Castillo said. "Right now, we can't really engage in these discussions. We're really going to be behind the ball if we don't have this authority."
Longmont voters in 2011 approved a ballot measure authorizing the city to create a fiber-optic broadband network, and last year approved bond funding to pay for it. The city is in the process of designing the network. Service will be rolled out over the next several years.
However, that didn't come without a fight.
Telecommunications companies spent $245,000 to defeat Longmont's first attempt to get voter approval for citywide fiber optic in 2009, making it the city's most expensive election ever at the time. In 2011, opponents spent $420,000, but voters approved the measure by 61 percent.
Tom Roiniotis, director of Longmont Power and Communications, said the city had to educate the community about the benefits of a city-run fiber-optic network.
Longmont had been trying since the 1990s to find a private investor willing to develop the network, but it became clear, Roiniotis said, that the payoff for private companies and the payoff for the city were different.
"The private sector has to do it for profit," he said. "We're not going to measure our success by the balance sheet of our utility. Our goals are to attract primary employers, increase the competitiveness of our companies and cover our costs. If we can do that, then we've met our goals."
Roiniotis said he is not surprised that Boulder would be interested in similar opportunities, though he thinks Longmont will retain an advantage by becoming the first Colorado community to develop a citywide fiber-optic network.
"Boulder remains a community that would significantly benefit from more economical, higher-capacity telecommunications services given our tech-savvy demographic, readiness for 'next gen' broadband services and available public fiber-optic infrastructure," the city memo says. "While no definitive plans are in place to create a telecommunications utility or engage in new public-private partnerships in Boulder, the planning and execution of new public initiatives will be unencumbered by the significant limitations in state law if an exemption measure is passed."
Don Ingle, Boulder's director of information technology, said Boulder wants to continue to be competitive, especially in the tech center, though the city is unlikely to follow Longmont's model of a city-run utility.
Instead, the city is likely to look for private partners to build out the pre-existing network.
Ingle said the city has no concrete plans in place to pursue partners, but he believes there will be a lot of interest if Boulder can get the authority.
"The broadband capacity currently offered by the private sector is not large enough," he said. "Given all the business innovation going on with the tech center, that level of connectivity would be a huge asset."
One thing the City Council needs to decide is whether to pursue the broader authority that Longmont got from its voters or a more limited authority just to work with private partners. Centennial took that approach in 2013 and saw relatively little opposition.
The Boulder City Council is scheduled to have a first reading and vote Tuesday on placing a measure on the November ballot. A public hearing and second vote would be held later this summer.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or email@example.com.
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