The Music Man Comes to Lakewood
I live in Lakewood, Colorado, a town of about 150,000 in the Denver suburbs. My house is on a little mountain on the west side of town, close to Golden.
My neighborhood is nice – lots of trees for the Front Range of the Rockies – but it’s not especially appealing to tech companies. Lakewood has a so-called technology center, but it’s home to nothing more than a carpet store and a crossfit gym.
In spite of these handicaps, we’re covered by gigabit cable modem service from Comcast, an emerging gigabit fiber-to-the-home network from CenturyLink, and Verizon’s pilot 5G network building out in Denver. Oddly, we’ve been asked to allow the city to build a municipal network of unknown description in next week’s election.
Why is this Happening?
Colorado passed a state law in 2005, “Concerning Local Government Competition in the Provision of Specified Communications Services,” better known as SB 152. This law says local governments can’t get into the broadband business without voter approval:
29-27-201. Vote – referendum. (1) Before a local government may engage or offer to engage in providing cable television service, telecommunications service, or advanced service, an election shall be called on whether or not the local government shall provide the proposed cable television service, telecommunications service, or advanced service.
In order to opt-out of SB 152, the local council placed the following question on the ballot:
Shall the City of Lakewood, Colorado, reestablish the city’s right to provide all services restricted since 2005 by the Colorado General Assembly with their passage of Senate Bill 05-152, including the authority to offer telecommunications services, high-speed internet services (advanced services), and/or cable television services to residents, businesses, schools, libraries, nonprofit entities and other users of such services, either directly or indirectly, with public or private sector partners, as expressly permitted by Colorado Revised Statutes Sections 29-27-101 through 304, “competition in utility and entertainment services,” without limiting its home rule authority?
It’s more than a little interesting that the ballot question is much more wordy than the state law. It’s also interesting that council put this question on the ballot while maintaining that it doesn’t actually intend to build a network. This is like buying a gun without purchasing ammo.
How Did This Happen?
The council became curious about the question of broadband networks while looking for voter candy last summer. Lakewood had passed a Strategic Growth Initiative limiting new home starts to one percent per year through the initiative process. The mayor and several council members who had opposed the measure realized they were out of touch with the voters and set to looking for things they could do to get back in their good graces.
We’re about an hour away from the town of Longmont, where the government is nearly done with a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network that offers gigabit service at an early adopter rate about 30% less than the normal rate it (and commercial operators) sell gigabit service for now. The people of Longmont seemed to love this network, probably because it appeared to be cheap while giving them bragging rights over neighboring hipster haven Boulder.
Early adopters locked in a rate of $50 a month by signing up in the first three months of availability, so people who were remotely curious signed up right away. Whether the city can make enough money to pay off the bonds is an open question – bond debt is $52 million and the system has already lost 20% of its total subscribers.
What This Means for Lakewood
NextLight is phone and broadband only, so it ends up being more expensive than a cable bundle for people who still watch TV. With 5G coming along behind Comcast’s and CenturyLink’s gigabit offerings, I suspect Longmont will be raising its electric rates to cover the cost of the NextLight bonds before long.
Longmont has a history of funding dubious projects, as it built a shopping mall in the ’80s that went bankrupt and then sold $27.5 million in bonds in 2016 to redevelop it. Lakewood is home to a more conservative electorate so funding for a big municipal broadband project is pretty much out of the question.
The Lakewood council was looking for an issue that would excite the left-wing fringe without scaring the majority that voted for slow growth. The broadband question is on the back side of the ballot, along with question awarding a garbage collection monopoly to the city, so many people won’t even see it.
A Dubious Presentation to the Council
About a year ago, the City Council set up a citizens’ advisory committee on broadband. This was apparently a local reaction to the FCC’s deregulation of broadband Internet access, the Restoring Internet Freedom order that we’re all familiar with.
The committee asked the Council to provide it with legal advice about municipal broadband, so they got a presentation from municipal broadband lobbyist Ken Fellman. Fellman is a former mayor of the nearby town of Arvada, and a leader of the Colorado Communications & Utility Alliance, a group that represents cities in telecom issues.
The committee asked the Council to put the question of an SB 152 opt-out on the ballot, so the Council asked Fellman to give it the same pitch he gave to the committee. The presentation, viewable online, contained quite a bit of spin.
Leading the Horse to Water
Fellman began by slamming SB 152 for lacking crisp definitions of the terms, but it refers to the Communications Act on key concepts such as the definition of telecommunications. He got a giggle over the fact that the 2005 definition of “broadband” was 256 Kbps, which he said was achievable by dial-up (Note: it isn’t.)
He warned the Council that the state could turn off the Wi-Fi network in the Council chamber if it wanted, which also isn’t true because public access to this service is incidental to its government function.
Council members are reluctant to consider offering a residential broadband service because the cost for a city that doesn’t own an electric utility (we use Xcel) is prohibitive, probably more than $500 million. We also have good commercial broadband options, but nobody mentioned this obvious fact.
Making the Horse Drink
Fellman, a veritable Music Man, sold the Council on the ballot measure by conjuring various extremely vague partnerships with private companies to serve various unspecified projects; he added a bit of “local control” sprinkles to seal the deal. The mayor said: “I’m not delusional enough to think that we the City of Lakewood would be operating a broadband network”, but then went on to note he was intrigued by the network offered in Centennial by Ting Internet.
Ting made a deal with Centennial to build a fiber ring connecting all of the city’s government buildings provided it could offer residential FTTH service. So it’s now connecting neighborhoods piecemeal fashion as funding permits.
This came as something of a surprise to the people of Centennial:
Ting signed on with the City of Centennial on March of 2018 to be part of the “fiber backbone” that gave high-speed access to businesses and government buildings. That agreement included allowing Ting to install its service in some neighborhoods of Centennial as well.
Voters approved a ballot measure in 2013 to allow the city to “begin exploring opportunities associated with indirect, competitive, and non-exclusive service provision models that support the transmission of high-speed Internet,” according to city documents. Decisions about partnerships and agreements since then were made by the City Council. That’s part of the reason why neighbors like Edwards are upset.
“We did not choose nor did we invite Ting to come into our neighborhood and to destroy the looks of it,” he said.
Due to pre-existing easements for utilities allowing access to the public-right-of-way, the internet company has a right to install fiber optic lines up to six feet onto someone’s property from the sidewalk. That’s where gas and some electric lines were marked in the neighborhoods.
“Not only are they going to be digging up our yards to install cable four feet parallel to the sidewalk, they’re going to be installing boxes that measure 13-inches by 18-inches,” Edwards explained.
This is how we roll in Colorado: cities enter into major deals with private companies by flying below the radar, inching into projects in relative secrecy until it’s too late to say no. Then they appease the voters with the “local control” mantra.
The public comment phase of council meetings is pretty hilarious in every city, as people take advantage of their microphone time to float conspiracy theories, express rage at the council, and complain about everything from barking dogs to noisy garbage trucks. The citizen input on the broadband initiative was mainly delivered by two members of a family with very peculiar ideas about the Internet.
Unsurprisingly, commenters expressed the erroneous belief that muni networks enhance user privacy by not collecting browsing histories. While it’s certainly possible for these networks to make the same promises commercial ISPs make about browsing histories, they have no effect on the dozens of firms that track users around the web.
Whether you access the Internet from Comcast or a government-run network, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Adobe, Twitter, and many others know what sites you visit because they have instrumented web pages with trackers. Install the Ghostery browser plugin and you can see who is looking at you. Shutting down commercial ISPs has no effect on Internet privacy: it’s already gone because the web runs on an ad-based business model.
Similarly, muni networks can promise to practice net neutrality, but their interconnection agreements actually work in the same, unequal way, as those of normal ISPs. Companies like Google and Facebook will always have more favorable interconnection terms with ISPs than you can get for your personal blog. That’s the way the Internet works, so net neutrality is nothing more than an aspiration.
I expect the ballot measure to pass because the small cadre of people who want a muni network will vote for it and the majority will either not vote on it or will vote 50/50. There’s been almost no public discussion or media coverage of the issue.
Fellman’s people, the muni advocates, will claim Lakewood voters are so mad at Comcast and CenturyLink that we’re demanding our own network. Then something like Ting Broadband will come along and piss everybody off.
But Ting will install just enough fiber to lock up a good portion of the 5G backhaul business and not enough to serve under-served citizens. The apparent voter rebellion will then be tamped down by new 5G broadband offerings from DISH (a local company with a lot of Colorado commitments), Verizon, or T-Mobile and we’ll move onto other things such as garbage service and the construction of apartments without adequate parking.
A Note on DISH and T-Mobile
The DISH prospect is most intriguing because of the deal the company made with the Colorado Attorney General’s office to back off from its lawsuit against the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. In return for some promises for Colorado jobs, low-priced broadband, and other sweeteners, Phil Weiser, the state attorney general who effectively led the nationwide opposition to the merger, pulled out of the action by Democratic state attorneys general he had started.
T-Mobile made substantial promises as well:
Within three years of the merger, T-Mobile’s 5G network in Colorado will deliver download speeds of 100 megabits per second or greater to 68% of the population, including at least 60% of people in rural areas.
Within six years, it will deliver speeds of 100 megabits per second or better to at least 92% of Coloradans, including at least 74% of people in rural areas.
For at least five years after the merger, T-Mobile will offer a service plan with unlimited talk, text and 2 gigabytes of data for $15 per month or less and another plan offering unlimited talk, text and 5 gigabytes of data for $25 per month or less.
While this is a great deal for Colorado, it’s unclear that other states are in a position to extract similar commitments. DISH is only going to have one US headquarters, and it’s going to remain in the Denver suburbs. T-Mobile can make the same promises to other states that it has made here, but who knows if they will.
In any event, there’s a lot of broadband action in the state of Colorado these days and it’s not all good.