High-speed fiber booming in Colorado as voters continue to blow up limits on municipal broadband
Nearly 15 years after the first Colorado community opted out of a state law prohibiting local governments from providing or investing in broadband internet service, 121 cities and towns in the state have followed suit, including four more communities in November’s election.
The result of all those ballots cast since Glenwood Springs first lifted the restriction on municipal broadband in the spring of 2008 is the installation of hundreds of miles of new fiber-optic lines throughout the Centennial State, from tiny Wray near the Kansas border to even smaller Mountain Village near Telluride — and dozens of communities in between.
The big pipes delivering data to homes and businesses mean an increasing number of Coloradans are now receiving gigabit-speed internet service — a lickety-split connection that makes online video or high-resolution gaming seamless and glitch-free. One gigabit-per-second can be as much as 100 times faster than the broadband speeds many residents get now.
“Forward-looking communities are starting to understand that fiber is a critical asset,” said Tim Scott, a project manager overseeing the buildout of Boulder’s broadband backbone.
The pandemic, which shifted work and schooling en masse to the web, shone a light on just how important a reliable and fast connection is in today’s world. And internet service from CenturyLink and Comcast, the two biggest players in the state, didn’t always hold up, Scott said.
“Why do we accept this duopoly of service? That’s what we’re trying to do in Boulder is to make it more competitive,” he said. “What the pandemic did is it brought the delivery of broadband services to the attention of every mayor.”
For Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, internet connectivity is “as important as having water and electricity, and we need to ensure we have robust systems in place to serve our residents and our businesses.”
It’s why Lakewood chose to team up with Google Fiber to bring gigabit service to the city of 156,000. The company’s first “fiber-to-the-home” service in Colorado is scheduled to start going into the ground in the state’s fifth-largest city in the first quarter of 2023.
For every city, it’s a different calculation when it comes to bolstering connectivity.
A few, like Longmont and Fort Collins, chose to build — and own — the fiber network themselves, and are selling internet service to residents and businesses directly. Others, like Centennial and Colorado Springs, have built or are building a “dark” fiber backbone that they lease to a third-party internet service provider, which turns around and markets plans to the public.
Still, others are taking a regional approach, like Region 10 on the Western Slope, a non-profit organization that uses state matching funds to build and lease fiber in a remotely populated six-county area of the state, stretching from Telluride to Delta and Gunnison to Lake City.
Corey Bryndal, regional broadband director for Region 10, calls the investments in the network — made possible by voters’ choices at the ballot box — a “game-changer” for a rural swath of Colorado that had given up on ever getting a speedy connection.
“The cable companies and phone companies have been modest in their investments in western Colorado,” he said. “We don’t have to live stuck where we are.”
The effort to come out of the shadow of Senate Bill 152, a law passed by state legislators in 2005 and designed to keep municipal governments out of the online infrastructure space so as not to compete with the private sector, has been slow but steady. The bill includes a provision allowing communities to override the law.
Aside from one defeat at the polls in Longmont in 2009, voters have given a green light to opt out of the state law 122 times over the last 14 years. On Nov. 8, Castle Pines, Lone Tree, Pueblo and Trinidad became the latest Colorado municipalities to say no to SB 152.
But Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said a yes vote “just allows the door to be opened” but “doesn’t put one inch of fiber in the ground.”
Infrastructure buildout looks different for everyone and depends on access to resources and expertise, geographic location and population density. And because each community in Colorado is moving at its own pace, some planted the broadband flag years ago while others only recently held an election on the matter.
Fort Collins was early out of the gate, with 83% of voters there overturning the restrictive law seven years ago. Two years later, voters passed a $150 million bond measure to fund the city’s broadband network, dubbed Connexion.
Construction on the 700-mile fiber backbone began in 2019 and is expected to wrap up in the next few weeks. Fort Collins is taking a full-service approach.
“The city is building the fiber backbone as well as fiber to each premise when those premises sign up,” said Chad Crager, Connexion’s executive director. “We are operating the entire ISP.”
Connexion charges $59.95 a month for 1-gigabit speed service, on both the download and upload side. Crager said the city has signed up nearly one in three households so far.
“The pandemic has made high-speed internet much more important, especially high upload speeds,” he said. “The pandemic resulted in a higher number of residents teleworking and students doing school work from home, thus the overall need for bandwidth and upload speeds has increased and high-speed internet has become a necessity.”
Centennial voters cast off SB 152 two years earlier than Fort Collins, and the city completed construction of a nearly $6 million, 50-mile dark fiber backbone in 2018. But the south suburb doesn’t have its fingers as deep in the broadband basket as its northerly neighbor.
Centennial’s fiber ring chiefly serves as a conduit between “community anchor institutions,” like the Cherry Creek School District and city buildings, said Centennial spokesman Eric Eddy. The 432-strand fiber network also provides a connection to the city’s intelligent traffic signaling system and powers free public Wi-Fi in Centennial Center Park.
The city is relying largely on Ting Internet to bring a gigabit broadband signal from the city’s unused fiber strands to individual homes and businesses.
“The city’s role is a neutral, non-exclusive middle-mile provider,” Eddy said. “Ting has leased city-owned fiber and built its own last-mile fiber network to provide services.”
Ting, which boasts “crazy-fast fiber internet” as its main offering, declined to comment for this story.
Colorado Springs is also turning to Ting to provide internet to the home in the state’s second-largest city. Colorado Springs Utilities, the city’s municipal utility, just started building its $600 million fiber backbone in September. It expects the first customers to receive internet service from Ting next year.
“When this fiber-optic network is complete in 2028, Colorado Springs will be one of the largest gig-cities in the country,” said Jamie Fabos, general manager of public affairs for Colorado Springs Utilities. “It will connect every address to the highest speed internet available and enable us to deliver utility services more efficiently and effectively.”
Rural broadband challenges
The Colorado Broadband Office has long aimed to ensure that rural and underserved areas of the state aren’t left out of the broadband revolution. According to a study published in June 2021 by BroadbandNow, nearly 675,000 people in Colorado lack access to an internet service that can provide 25 Mbps (million bits per second) download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds — the government’s definition of broadband.
There may be as many as 80,000 to 90,000 rural Colorado households with subpar internet, state officials estimated right before the pandemic arrived in the state.
Lauren Francis, broadband marketing communications manager with the Governor’s Office of Information Technology, said the state is preparing for a gush of dollars from last year’s $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, some of which is earmarked for internet expansion.
“Our office is focusing on understanding broadband coverage across the state by building comprehensive maps to support future grant decisions when we are ready to deploy millions from federal broadband programs over the next few years,” she said.
In early December, state officials unveiled a $171 million grant program from the federal government to connect 18,000 homes, businesses, and farms to high-speed internet. That represents about 15% of locations that currently lack high-speed internet in the state.
At the same time, U.S. Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet announced $43.7 million from the infrastructure bill to deploy high-speed internet to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado’s southwest corner.
“Tribal communities too often find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Bennet said in a statement. “With this funding, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe can bring their families, farms, businesses, and schools online, help communities within the reservation boundaries improve their broadband services, and begin to close that digital gap.”
All in all, Gov. Jared Polis said the state expects to receive between $400 million and $1 billion over the next few years for broadband efforts. Francis said the state government wants to help fill gaps in coverage while not unfairly impacting companies that already successfully provide internet service in Colorado.
“We also do not want to overbuild, so if a provider is offering fair pricing and reliable service to the residents of that town, then competition may not be necessary,” she said.
Access to good internet connections can be a big problem for rural parts of Colorado, Region 10 broadband director Bryndal said. His organization, he said, isn’t in the business of displacing companies already providing service.
“We’re just trying to lower the barriers for the internet service providers,” he said, noting that laying fiber in remote, topographically challenging areas doesn’t pencil out for most companies.
Region 10 has acquired or installed about 600 miles of fiber-optic cable in its six-county footprint, lighting up more populated areas like Ouray, Montrose, Delta and Telluride with high-speed internet. But Bryndal said there are still plenty of pockets in his part of the state where broadband doesn’t exist, including in Crested Butte, where he lives.
“We’re not competing or overbuilding — we’re just trying to build infrastructure where it hasn’t been able to be built,” he said.
CenturyLink’s parent company, Lumen Technologies, said the industry is best managed by private hands. The company announced last month the launch of its gigabit-speed Quantum Fiber service in metro Denver and Colorado Springs. Danielle Spears, a Lumen spokeswoman, said “private sector providers have proven to be better positioned and more motivated to deliver on innovation.”
“Programs that favor government-owned networks have proven not to be in the best interest of consumers or taxpayers,” she said.
For its part, Comcast emphasized its role in bearing “the entire risk of its investments” in Colorado, which it pegged at $1.2 billion last year.
“Over the last few years, as internet usage increased, our fiber-backed network continued to thrive as overall demand rose to historic levels,” said Leslie Oliver, a company spokeswoman. “We regularly provide automatic speed increases to our customers over our fiber-backed technology that already exists in their homes and businesses, without the need to do disruptive construction.”
Scott, with Boulder’s broadband project, acknowledged the disruption created by burying 60 miles of fiber under the city’s streets and sidewalks. But he said the city is 75% done with the installation and expects the first customers to come online in a couple of years. Meanwhile, the city’s new fiber backbone will power its traffic signals and connect its municipal facilities via gigabit speeds.
“We need to figure out how to be in the game of owning our own fiber infrastructure,” Scott said.
Google Fiber in Lakewood will take several years to build out. But Mark Strama, director of expansion for Google, said the company is using a technique called micro-trenching — the width of the cut in the pavement is only about an inch or two — to lay its fiber.
“We’ll be in and out of your neighborhood in a day,” he said.
The message from Colorado voters at the ballot box over the last 14 years is clear, Strama said: They want whatever barriers exist to accessing affordable and reliable high-speed internet removed.
“The message voters are sending is that they want more competition for internet services,” he said.