June 28, 2018
There is a quiet revolution brewing in Colorado. Residents are demanding more robust and affordable broadband, and more than 120 communities have already voted via referendum to restore their authority to make their own broadband decisions. The story of how Fort Collins, Colorado has successfully taken on the large incumbent broadband providers despite steep uphill battles demonstrates how community interest and engagement can overcome even the greatest challenges.
Fort Collins is a city north of Denver, and home to roughly 167,000 residents. As one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, innovation is central to its success. Fort Collins determined that its people and its future are dependent on high-speed, high-quality, and affordable internet access. Take, for example, the Colorado dentist who is reliant upon broadband access to transfer large medical files and wants municipal broadband to help improve internet connectivity and consequently, community connection. The city’s economic and social future depends on fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connections, which is the fastest type of internet connection around. Even with some FTTH offerings from CenturyLink, the forward-thinking residents of Fort Collins wanted more.
When Fort Collins began looking into building its own network in 2016, its broadband market was good but not great, and was markedly inferior to the city of Longmont’s, which stands a mere 30 miles to the south. Longmont has its own municipal network, which recently decreased prices when incumbents raised theirs. At that time, CenturyLink, which had 37 percent of the market in Fort Collins, offered some FTTH connections, and Comcast, with 57 percent of the market, did not. What’s more, neither company would commit to building additional FTTH connections in the future. Comcast’s gigabit service in Fort Collins was twice as expensive as gigabit service in Longmont. Fort Collins elected officials and residents were not satisfied with their options. Unsurprisingly, residents ranked CenturyLink and Comcast quite low in customer satisfaction surveys: 6.8/10 for DSL services and 6.6/10 for cable modem services. The city’s own electric utility was ranked much higher: 8.7/10. The table below shows the incumbent broadband providers’ offerings in March 2016:
Fort Collins’ electric company’s higher customer satisfaction ranking, paired with residents’ strong desire for high-quality and affordable broadband connections, galvanized Fort Collins to invest in itself. The city began planning to build its own FTTH municipal broadband network serving all residents. While building a municipal network is a difficult and significant undertaking that takes many years to complete, the city is making a major investment in the local community to the benefit of its residents. At this point, the city is planning to finish building the network by 2022, and the first customers will be served by 2019.
Prior to building the network, the city held multiple votes on broadband-related issues to allow the process to move forward. In 2015, the city held a vote to decide if it should exempt itself from an onerous state law that imposes certain requirements on cities that wish to build their own broadband networks. That vote won with 83 percent voting in favor. In late 2017, the city asked whether it should move forward with a direct service model, in which the city provides internet service directly to residents rather than partnering with a private provider, and to allow the city to issue $150 million in bonds to pay for network infrastructure. That vote, too, succeeded with 57 percent voting in favor.
These victories were by no means predetermined. The 2017 vote in particular was subject to extensive incumbent lobbying and public relations efforts attempting to defeat the measure. In the end, an incumbent-funded front group, called Priorities First Fort Collins, spent $900,999 in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the measure—nearly doubling the record for spending on a local, single referendum. Proponents of the measure, through an organization called Fort Collins Citizens Broadband Committee, spent roughly $15,000 defending the referendum and had significant community backing. The cost per vote on each side is shown in the graphic below:
The story of Fort Collins’ journey toward a municipal broadband network is one of people driving the change. To beat the relentless public campaign by CenturyLink and Comcast, a small group of concerned citizens, led by Colin Garfield and Glen Akins, came together and created a large community of support, which they then connected to decision-makers. They formed the Citizens Broadband Committee and started hosting events called “Broadband and Beers,” designed to bring together people who cared about getting access to faster broadband through a municipal network.
The group started small, with events hosted at local breweries (for which Colorado is renowned), and the committee invited citizens and policy makers and their staff. The first event had twelve attendees, which the leaders thought was too small. So they turned to Facebook and Reddit to publicize the meetings, which quickly increased in size. That led the Citizens Broadband Committee to hold more Broadband and Beers events. The mayor and council members showed up to multiple meetings, and government staff attended all of them. This engagement allowed members of government to hear directly from citizens who cared about affordable, locally-accountable broadband and helped push the project forward, while the documentation on Facebook and Reddit provided evidence of the widespread community support. Ultimately, these efforts around the 2017 referendum paid off, leading to a 14 percent margin of victory.
Small groups of organized citizens can make substantial change. Even in areas where some broadband providers exist, they may not provide affordable or quality connections. In those cases, local problems deserve local solutions, and cities and residents should be empowered to take matters into their own hands. That is exactly what Fort Collins did, and its citizens will likely be rewarded for the effort.