Net neutrality controversy could embolden Colorado efforts to build public internet infrastructure
Last week’s controversial repeal of federal regulations that prevented internet providers from speeding up sites they favor and slow down or block others charts a new course for the web’s history.
Open internet advocates say it will be a grim one, with consumers paying tiered pricing of certain types of sites and internet service providers using bandwidth as a cudgel against upstart rivals.
The ISPs, including Comcast and Century Link, have dismissed those predictions, saying the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to repeal Obama-era rules mandating all websites be treated equally will boost innovation.
Either way, controversy around the Dec. 14 vote has emboldened advocates for public broadband, who argue that networks run by local governments would be less likely than large private companies to abuse the discretion afforded by the rule change.
“For those of us working on public broadband, this FCC repeal has dramatically increased the number of people interested in what we’re doing,” said Chris Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “We are definitely seeing more interest.”
In Colorado especially, interest in public internet has been growing for years, as voters in jurisdictions across the state have overwhelmingly voted to opt out of a 2005 law preventing local governments from building their own networks.
Mitchell argued that public broadband providers are less likely to throttle access to or jack up prices for certain sites and services because they’re directly accountable to voters.
“Because of that accountability, local governments can typically deliver faster internet at a lower cost and with better customer service,” he said. “If they were to suddenly raise prices or block off eliminate access to Netflix, voters could make them pay.”
What’s more, since municipal networks are tiny compared to national providers, they don’t have the resources or clout to bully companies for bandwidth. If a locally run network demanded Netflix pay more for bandwidth, they likely wouldn’t get a phone call back — but a giant like Comcast certainly would.
“What the lack of net neutrality potentially means is that an ISP could take a data stream coming from a source, whether that’s Google, Netflix or whoever, and they could control the speed and slow it down based on business decisions,” said Nate Walowitz, regional broadband director for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
Walowitz is currently working on a regional, middle-mile broadband network covering governments along the High Country and West Slope.
While the network, called Project THOR, couldn’t assure it’s initial broadband provider didn’t engage in throttling, Walowitz said it has secured a preliminary commitment from a company that’s unlikely to do so. THOR itself would be barred from doing so.
“We would be a completely open and completely neutral pipeline,” Walowitz said.
In order to join THOR, which is still in the planning phases, governments would need to be among more than 100 Colorado governments who have voted to override the 2005 law, Senate Bill 152. During the November election, 19 cities and counties joined that list, including Dillon and Silverthorne.
The opt-out referendum has never failed. It passed this year in Fort Collins by 57 percent, despite industry groups spending more than $256,000 to block the measure, which allows the city to issue $150 million in debt to explore municipal broadband.
Longmont was the first city to opt out in 2011 and is now offering internet that is five times faster than before for $49.95 a month.
“Colorado is definitely far ahead of many other places,” Mitchell said. “The referendum issue created a lot more momentum than we’ve seen in most states.”
Some of the most high-profile public broadband projects have been happening on the Front Range, where laying fiber is more cost-effective and customer pools are larger.
But opting out of SB-152 has also benefited rural areas like Rio Blanco County, which invested in a fiber network with state and federal grant money that now allows providers there to deliver cheaper, faster service.
In Summit County, Breckenridge, Dillon and Silverthorne have all opted out of SB-152. That would allow them to tap into Project THOR, a middle-mile network that would be more resilient to outages and cheaper than the current patchwork of fiber lines connecting towns and cities.
THOR has identified a provider willing to deliver front-end broadband, Walowitz said, but he couldn’t yet name the provider nor provide a price estimate because a contract hasn’t been finalized yet.
THOR has already won commitments from Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs and Pitkin County. While it wouldn’t be directly consumer facing, Walowitz said local providers would be free to use it as well.
“We’re working with hospitals, community institutions and other commercial businesses,” Walowitz said. “It could certainly extend to private consumers, should those providers choose to use THOR. We’re trying to that open pipe that allows whoever wants to tap in to do so.”
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