Some Coloradans push for more broadband options

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
A woman poaches public Wi-Fi on her tablet near the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall on Thursday.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.

If you could purchase Internet service at 700 times the speed at a fraction of the cost, you would probably take it, especially if you’re a business owner.

Despite influence from telecommunication giants like Comcast and AT&T, municipalities all around the U.S. are finding ways to provide residents with unprecedented broadband speeds and rates.

“Aspen is supposed to be a forward-thinking city. Some of the brightest thinkers in the country are coming here, and this is something we can do to move technology forward.”
Eric Boyden, Snowmass Village resident

Eric Boyden, a 27-year-old Snowmass Village resident who works in Aspen, pays about $80 a month for Comcast cable Internet, which he says averages about 1 or 2 megabits per second. That’s a sharp contrast with speeds available in Longmont, 200 miles east, where local blogger Steve Elliott recently told The Denver Post that since 2011, he’s been using a city-provided, fiber-optic network that reaches 739 megabits per second at a cost of $50 a month.

Longmont is one of the first Colorado cities to sidestep Senate Bill 152, a measure that prevents municipalities from selling Internet service. A caveat to the bill is that jurisdictions can put the issue on the ballot, and if the majority of voters signs off, they are free to provide broadband. In November, seven Colorado cities and counties followed Longmont’s example, including Boulder, Yuma, Wray, Cherry Hills Village and Red Cliff as well as Rio Blanco and Yuma counties.

Pitkin County’s Assistant County Manager Phylis Mattice said Thursday that the county has no desire to become an Internet service provider. However, she said officials are open to potential solutions and partnerships that might help its rural residents in places such as Redstone, Thomasville and Castle Creek Valley.

Local officials recently submitted a request for proposals to study the potential for a broadband network in Pitkin County. They’ve also considered floating an opinion to the legislative group Colorado Counties, arguing for the removal of SB 152 restrictions, Mattice said.

Aspen’s City Attorney Jim True pointed out that there is no local push for municipal broadband, though city officials discussed the idea a few years ago. Boyden acknowledges the apathy in Aspen, but argues it’s because people don’t know other options exist.

Boyden learned about the municipal broadband movement through Reddit, a social-media website driven in part by crowdsourcing and citizen journalism. He and other “Redditors” are closely following President Barack Obama’s push for net neutrality, an effort to lessen corporate influence over digital content. Large companies such as Comcast and AT&T have been accused of favoring and blocking particular products and websites based on fee agreements. Obama has urged the Federal Communications Commission to treat enforcement of the Internet like any other utility.

“What if someone was out here price gouging for water?” Boyden asked.

He understands the burden it places on a city, but said if a utility department can provide electricity and gas, it can learn to provide Internet. He also noted the jobs and competition that broadband introduces to the market.

“Aspen is supposed to be a forward-thinking city,” Boyden said. “Some of the brightest thinkers in the country are coming here, and this is something we can do to move technology forward.”

Another broadband option that’s gaining traction and introducing competition is Google Fiber. In Austin, Texas, for instance, residents can pay $70 a month for Internet at speeds of as much as 1 gigabit, or 1,000 megabits, per second. Google Fiber also offers a $25 option for basic Internet of as much as 5 megabits per second.

As soon as competition is introduced, the product improves, Boyden said, adding that it’s the decision of large providers to offer a lesser product.

“They could be providing better service, but they’re not in the name of profits, which is understandable with private enterprise,” he said. “But when you have a monopoly, they’re taking advantage.”

Many blame bad practice as a reason the U.S. is falling behind the global broadband market. In its latest State of the Internet study, international cloud company Akamai ranked the U.S. at No. 14, clocking speeds at less than half as fast as No. 1, South Korea.

Comcast’s regional vice president of public relations, Cindy Parsons, issued a statement arguing that government-owned networks are not a good use of tax dollars in areas where the private market is already providing services.

“Government entry into direct ownership of broadband facilities is risky and costly — especially at a time when other priorities, like transportation infrastructure, desperately need public funds,” the statement said. “Building, maintaining and upgrading a broadband network is a complex endeavor requiring enormous funds and experience. In case after case, localities and their citizens have found that building broadband networks has created severe financial hardship.”

Another argument for municipal broadband is the local economic impact. The Denver Post reported that Chattanooga, Tennessee, spent $111 million of federal stimulus money to complete a fiber-optic network more than 600 square miles, offering gigabit service to all businesses, residences and institutions. The city has added 1,000 new jobs over the past three years and is emerging as an incubator for tech startups, according to The Denver Post report.

Mattice weighed the national trend of location-neutral workers, people who maintain remote jobs thousands of miles away from headquarters. Boosted by its scenery and quality of life, Pitkin County is attractive for neutral workers, Mattice said. But economists are trying to gauge local contribution from such employees and businesses.

“It’s hard to quantify because you don’t necessarily know who they are,” Mattice said. “How many people do we know living in our region that are working for some company in California? It’s a different world.”