Next Tuesday, November 8, 26 separate Colorado communities will vote on whether their local governments should build high speed fiber internet networks to compete with or replace big telecom internet service providers.
So-called municipal fiber ballot initiatives have become an annual tradition in Colorado, as roughly 100 communities have voted on measures that provide legal cover to governments who want to build new networks. The initiatives are required under a SB152, a law enacted in 2008 after several lobbying efforts by CenturyLink made it illegal for municipalities to provide fiber internet to private premises without first obtaining permission in a ballot measure.
Last year, a record 47 communities passed similar referenda; no communities voted it down. Not every city is going to become its own internet service provider—the law requires cities to hold referenda even if they plan on partnering with companies on public-private fiber network initiatives.
"The law uses broad definitions for what cities can and cannot do," Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Community Broadband Networks Initiative, told me.
"We only know of two that have failed in the last six years," he added. "Many of these networks are tremendously successful."
Such networks are increasingly seen as vital to the economic development of cities that are underserved by traditional ISPs.
Colorado is the only state in the country that has a ballot measure requirement for locally run networks; 22 other states have different laws that restrict local broadband efforts. With so many cities overwhelmingly voting in favor of local government-run broadband, Mitchell says that Colorado's law hasn't quite had the effect CenturyLink would have liked.
"If this is the worst barrier we had to deal with, I don't think anyone would be complaining," he said. "It's not as bad as Nebraska or North Carolina, where cities basically can't do anything under the circumstances of their laws."
In fact, it looks like big telecom internet providers have all but given up on fighting ballot referenda in Colorado. Comcast spent $250,000 on a successful public relations campaign opposing a proposed network in Longmont, Colorado, in 2009. When the issue came up again in 2011, it spent another $300,000, but the referenda passed, and Longmont built its network.
"Since then, the cable and telephone companies have not been engaging in broad local lobbying," Mitchell said. "It's too costly for them to beat these ballot measures, so they have mostly remained quiet."
Here is a full list of the cities and counties that will be voting Tuesday:
- Black Hawk
- Cripple Creek
- Green Mountain Falls
- New Castle
- Woodland Park
- Dolores County
- El Paso County
- Garfield County
- Larimer County
- Montrose County
- Montezuma County
- Teller County