Glenwood voters have say on fiber optics |

Glenwood voters have say on fiber optics

Pete Fowler
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” A ballot question mailed to Glenwood Springs voters would authorize the city to provide Internet, telephone and cable television service.

It’s an initial step in a proposal to sell those services directly to homes through fiber-optic cables.

“It’s the authorization to expand the system that we have in place now,” said Mayor Bruce Christensen.

A state law requires voter approval for a city to provide those services. But a yes vote doesn’t mean the city must proceed. A second vote would be required later ” possibly in November ” to let the city enter into $12 million in debt to install the infrastructure, according to City Manager Jeff Hecksel.

He said the $12 million bond would be repaid by user fees, not taxes, over a 20-year period. A feasibility study indicates that no other subsidy will be necessary if the city can get about a third of its potential customers to use the services, he said, and the city may also be able to find other sources of funding to lower the $12 million figure.

If the ballot question were approved, the city could build out the Community Broadband Network installed in 2002, which directly connects fiber optics only to commercial customers in certain areas.

The best the current network has ever done financially is to lose about $189,000 last year, according to the city. In 2002, the Post Independent reported that $1.6 million was paid to Brunetti DEC, a Denver consulting firm, and the fiber-optic network cost almost $3.5 million to build. Some local Internet service providers alleged consultants made threats to gain more of the market and complained funds were wasted by selecting Brunetti in a no-bid process.

Hecksel said the network got into its current situation through a series of decisions outside the original business plan. A city status report on the network indicates the network eventually operated with no business plan. That original business plan called for multiple services including video, and the network was equipped to provide services to more than just businesses, according to the report.

Hecksel said public works director Robin Millyard has a saying that describes the current network: “It’s like having a Ferrari in a garage on a gravel road.”

The city believes expanding the fiber-optic infrastructure to reach homes will stop the network from losing money, improve economic development, provide employment opportunities and offer consumers more bandwidth plus a better and more diverse set of services.

“We really have a tremendous asset available to this community that’s being underutilized,” Hecksel said.

UTI Inc. and Alcatel Lucent, who pitched the business plan, said it could also lower costs and build infrastructure that would allow the city to better control its future. A UTI representative said at least $10 million a year is leaving the community to pay for voice, data and video services.

Not everyone, however, believes government should provide those services.

“I think it’s been proven across the country to not work well with any government body running it,” said Michael Mayer. “Stop, you don’t need to be doing this. See that road over there? Fix it. See that bridge that doesn’t exist? Build it. That’s what a government does.”

Mayer said he’s an independent software developer, system designer and technical business consultant who served as the director of strategic planning for Sopris Surfers from 2000-’03. He believes that in order to compete, the city would need to undercut existing providers’ pricing for TV, Internet and phone service, and the only way it could do that is by having taxpayers finance the difference. He said the city should “stop the bleeding and get out” of the municipal broadband business.

Mayer believes small municipalities can’t keep pace with the fast-moving technology field, and he questions whether the city could provide superior services at lower cost than existing providers.

Hecksel said that even if this ballot question is approved, the city would only move forward if there’s a “high degree of confidence” that the business plan would succeed financially and benefit the community.

The Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association has asked its members to vote yes on the ballot measure. A chamber mailing echoed the city’s comments that the proposal would make the current network financially sustainable and provide better services. The mailing says a chamber survey shows “strong support” for the initiative among chamber members.

Under the business plan being considered, the city would sell its wireless infrastructure and customers and focus on providing Internet, TV and phone service through fiber optics. Hecksel said the city could provide the services itself, or partner with private companies who would get exclusive rights to the fiber-optic network.

If the city pursues expanding the fiber-optic infrastructure to homes, construction could take up to two years, from late 2008 or some time in 2009.

Chris Dobbins, general manager of the Roaring Fork Internet Users Group, and Paul Huttenhower, general manager and president of Sopris Surfers, both have said installing the infrastructure for fiber optics to homes would be a good thing as long as the business plan is solid.

Dobbins said previously that consolidating Internet, TV and phone services into one fiber-optic package could save users money.

“It’s economic development. It’s choice,” Hecksel said.

“It’s a higher level of service,” Christensen said.

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