In November 2014, the community approved a ballot measure (Item 2C) exempting the city from state limitations on telecommunication services. This measure establishes city autonomy to invest in community broadband services, which had previously been limited by Colorado Senate Bill 05-152. Without a voter-approved exemption, this law significantly restricts the ability of municipal governments to provide broadband services, either independently or in partnership with private entities.
The passage of Item 2C opens exciting new opportunities to explore a number of alternative broadband initiatives that would leverage and expand the community’s telecommunication resources. Given Boulder’s tech-savvy demographic, community readiness for next-generation services, and publicly available fiber-optic infrastructure, the community could benefit from more economical, higher-capacity broadband services. The related efforts to provide free Wi-Fi in certain city-parks and to explore and implement community broadband are called “Connect Boulder.”
The city is now actively studying potential uses and business models for leveraging its citywide fiber optic and conduit infrastructure, along with needed enhancements, to serve the broadband needs of the community by building a ubiquitous fiber-to-the premise network.
There are currently two models being considered:
- A public-private partnership that would pair the city with a private company to finance, build, maintain and operate the network
- A build-out that is entirely financed, built, and controlled by the city but would cost the city more.
Under either scenario, the city would be seeking one or more new entrants to the Boulder market to provide the retail internet service operations.
A formal, consultant-assisted broadband feasibility study was presented to the city council in July 2016. In addition to outlining alternative public-private partnership options and cost scenarios in July 2016, the city council authorized staff to enter into more detailed discussions with three private firms (whose responses to a request for information (RFI) were deemed worthy of further negotiation and analysis as well as a fourth company, Zayo, that had, subsequent to the RFI, demonstrated significant interest in a partnership. In providing support for these continued talks, council identified some new policy objectives including: a ubiquitous buildout, competitive access to the network, opportunities to provide high-speed access to those with limited financial resources, and protections against the sale of the network to existing incumbents. In doing so, however, council asked staff to continue to retain and explore the option of a network buildout fully funded by the city. Depending on alternative construction scenarios, a ubiquitous, city-funded fiber build is currently expected to cost between $100 million to $140 million.
A Broadband Working Group composed of community representatives was established in 2015 and continued to meet until early in 2017. The group demonstrated a key advisory role for the project in:
- Assessing needs, contributing ideas and helping guide the initial vision for Boulder’s broadband efforts.
- Advising on the work of the city’s consulting partner to assist in developing a comprehensive broadband action plan.
- Advising city staff on the analysis and options for a city-wide fiber network.
In the interim, the city has been completing small projects that have a positive impact on public spaces. In April 2015, the first such project – an outdoor public Wi-Fi network called “Connect Boulder” – began service in the downtown Civic Area. In addition, free outdoor Wi-Fi went live in highly-used areas around Scott Carpenter Park and the Boulder Reservoir in April 2017. These and related projects would not be possible without the exemption vote.
Status and Potential Next Steps
Phase I (complete): This phase has spanned two years and included research and analysis. Completed work: a community survey and needs assessment; the creation of guiding principles through a working group process; consultant analysis of costs and partnership potential; discussions with, and vetting of, possible private partners; consultation with and solicitation of direction from city council.
Phase II (fall 2017 to spring 2018): Complete additional analysis, share findings of all research to date, gather input from community and refine options. Solicit interest from private firms and explore both models.
Phase III (spring to fall 2018): Select a preferred alternative; Consider ballot measure(s) related to options and funding mechanisms; possible citizen vote in November 2018.
Further information on the city’s broadband efforts and periodic updates can be found on the city’s Connect Boulder website.
- First Quarter 2018 – Council to receive updated analysis of private and public broadband business model alternatives.
- Second Quarter 2018 – Council direction on a preferred approach, determination of potential ballot item.
- Third Quarter 2018 – Council consideration of potential ballot item.
Chris Meschuk, Assistant City Manager, 303-441-4293 or [email protected].