Last Week in Tech Policy #61: Fort Collins Colorado and the Municipal Broadband Experiment

(by Brett Hildebrand, Colorado Law 3L)

One of the most high-profile recent developments in municipal broadband is happening in Fort Collins, CO, a college town just an hour north of Boulder. The city has voted to become its own internet service provider, overcoming a large campaign by one incumbent ISP. The proposal started as ballot initiative 2B, which passed in November 2017, and then was approved unanimously by the city council in January 2018. The city is currently accepting bids to build out the network and infrastructure necessary to get the service up and running. The approach is outlined in the city’s recently approved the Broadband Strategic Plan.

To follow Colorado State law, Fort Collins, like many other Colorado cities, passed a referendum to comply with Senate Bill 152, which prohibits taxpayer money from going to municipal broadband networks without a vote. Fort Collins passed the measure in 2015, which led the way to the current plan.

Campaign filings show that the interest group “Priorities First Fort Collins” spent over $900,000 to try to defeat the ballot initiative.  This group was supported by major ISPs including Comcast. Voters rejected what Ft. Collins Mayor, Wade Troxell, described as a “misinformation campaign”, and voted for 2B despite the bulk of the advertising money being used to try to sway voters against it.

The Broadband Strategic Plan website says that Fort Collins is committed to the principles of net neutrality, and does not support restrictions on access, or preferential treatment to certain providers. The city will use bonds and debt up to $150 million to pay for the infrastructure, and then the goal is to pay for the service through user fees.

The Business Plan Executive Summary details how the  network itself will be a state of the art Fiber to the Premise (FTTP) deployment that relies on fiber optic cables for the entire length of the network. According to the plan, this will lead to competitive bandwidth and download speeds of up to 1 Gbps for residential and commercial users. The plan also says that the city is committed to privacy, and will use best practices to implement both network and physical security. These measures include access control, firewalls, and anti-spoofing filters. 

Can Fort Collins serve as a model for how other cities can continue to adhere to net neutrality principles as an alternative to relying on the federal government and the FCC  protection? Or, is municipal broadband an overreach of local government power that is too expensive and better left to the private sector?  Many areas in the United States only have access one ISP, and municipal offerings might offer an additional option and limit the prospect for anti-competitive behavior. On the other hand, there are several ISPs servicing Fort Collins. As a result, municipal broadband may be unnecessary, expensive, and leave residents liable to pay the costs if the plan fails.

Some net neutrality supporters may argue that the upside for consumers is the choice for a more direct democratic say in how the service should be regulated. Opponents of net neutrality, on the other hand, may argue that municipal broadband is unfair government-subsidized competition.

Cities may also not have the expertise of private ISPs.  An empirical assessment written by professors Christopher S. Yoo and Timothy Pfenninger concluded that out of the 20 municipal projects that report financial results,  11 had negative cash flow, 7 would take 60 years to break even, and 2 could pay off their debt during the useful life of the network.

Either way, those interested in the future of municipal broadband should keep their eyes on Fort Collins to see how the plan is executed over the next several years.