Routt County may ask voters to opt out of state telecommunications bill

Tom Ross
Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Tom Kern speaks at a ribbon cutting Tuesday afternoon for a carrier-neutral location in the George P. Sauer Human Services Center in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell

— Routt County commissioners could decide today to join other small governments in Colorado asking their constituents to opt out of a decade-old state law being blamed with stunting the growth of high-speed broadband infrastructure, particularly in rural areas of the state.

County Manager Tom Sullivan, who has been active locally in a cooperative group called Northwest Colorado Broadband, presented to the commissioners Monday a plan to place a ballot question on the Nov. 3 ballot. It would ask voters’ approval to get out from under a statute commonly referred to as Senate Bill 152, which limits what local government can do to improve high speed Internet connections in their jurisdictions.

“The bill was written by the telecom industry and has solidified territorial practices of the telecom industry and what has essentially been a monopoly business in northwest Colorado,” Sullivan wrote in a memo to the commissioners. “Efforts to repeal the law at the state legislature have failed due to intense lobbying by the telecom industry.”

Northwest Colorado Broadband, which includes the Steamboat Springs School District and the city of Steamboat along with the county, has had some success with efforts to introduce competition in the local market while working to improve the speed and capacity for Internet-based data transmission here.

Essentially, Senate Bill 152 has removed much of the incentive for telecommunications companies like CenturyLink, which dominates fiber optic cable coming in and out of Northwest Colorado, to invest in better infrastructure. Consumers, businesses and community institutions in the rural areas of Colorado tend to pay more for slower Internet capacity than their counterparts in larger cities. But even on the Front Range, local governments are persuading voters to opt out of the bill.

The Denver Post reported in August 2014 that the bill, which was pushed by telecomm companies before the general public came to understand how much it would come to rely on bandwidth, was presented as a means to prevent governments from interfering with the private sector.

Other governments that have persuaded their voters to opt out of SB 152 include Centennial, Montrose and Longmont. Pitkin County is just a few weeks ahead of Routt County in beginning the process this spring.

Sullivan said Yampa Valley Electric Association and Yampa Valley Medical Center continue to be interested in joining the county, city of Steamboat Springs and Steamboat Springs School District in building stronger community broadband. The next step would be to pursue a grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) to study the status of existing infrastructure.

“The advantage I believe here, is it’s going to identify all of the gaps (in broadband), not only where there isn’t infrastructure, but to verify stated capacity,” Sullivan said. “This will put us in a position to get grand funding. That’s the key right there. We’ll be able to go to DOLA, and pool our funds.”

Northwest Colorado Broadband realized a significant achievement in late May 2014 when it established a piece of broadband equipment called a carrier-neutral location in a small room in the school administration building. It allowed a second middle-mile broadband town, Mammoth Networks, to establish itself here.

The new capacity quickly resulted in lower costs paid on a megabit-per-second (Mbps) basis.

The middle mile is a segment of network infrastructure between the backbone of the Internet and last-mile providers, which serve individual customers.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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