Fort Collins, Colorado is set to vote on a ballot measure that would open the door for municipal broadband, and Big Telecom is fighting mad.
Downtown Fort Collins, Colorado. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Politics is an expensive game, but when an oligopoly is at stake, there's no price tag too high for Big Telecom. In Fort Collins, Colorado—a town of about 150,000 north of Denver—Big Telecom has contributed more than $200,000 to a campaign opposing a ballot measure to simply consider a city-run broadband network. It's the latest example of how far Big Telecom is willing to go to prevent communities from building their own internet and competing with the status quo.
"It's been wild," said Glen Akins, a Fort Collins advocate for municipal broadband. "We're overwhelmed by the amount of money the opposition is spending."
When the residents of Fort Collins vote on November 7 they'll have a couple of ballot measures to consider, including one on city-run internet. If that measure is approved, Fort Collins will be able to change the city charter to allow it to run a municipal broadband utility. This doesn't mean it will happen for sure, and the city still hasn't finalized what that utility would look like, but it opens the door to further discussions.
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It's part of a process that is necessary because Colorado is one of 23 states that have laws restricting the development of municipally owned broadband (all of which have been lobbied for by telecom companies). Colorado's law can be bypassed with a ballot measure, and in recent years this action has become particularly popular. Last year, 26 communities in Colorado voted on municipal broadband measures—all of them passed, meaning those municipalities can now explore building their own networks. In total, more than 100 communities in Colorado have voted in favor of measures to bypass the state's restriction. Fort Collins passed this hurdle in 2015, and the new vote would take the next step of amending the town charter.
But there are surprisingly strong forces at play lobbying against the Fort Collins measure, and funding a campaign that includes TV and radio ads, Google search ads, and flyers.
The biggest contributor to the anti-municipal broadband measure is the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, a trade group representing the traditional telecom providers in the state.
"We are involved in the chamber of commerce and in the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association," Leslie Oliver, Comcast's director of external communications for its west division, told me over the phone.
The CCTA forked over $125,000 to Priorities First Fort Collins, the anti-municipal broadband campaign, according to filings published Wednesday. But there's also been a $85,000 contribution from Citizens for a Sustainable Economy, a local nonprofit run by the city's Chamber of Commerce, which include local provider CenturyLink as a member.
"There are two explanations: one is that all of the cable companies in the state feel very strongly about drawing a line in the sand now, after 100 communities have already made this decision," Christopher Mitchell, Community Broadband Networks initiative director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said over the phone. "Or Comcast is the one pushing it, and we've seen that in countless states before."
Oliver told me Comcast had not made any public statements about the ballot measure. Motherboard reached out to Centurylink but did not receive an immediate response.
The "no" campaign's main argument is that the city shouldn't waste money on projects like a municipal broadband network where there are other, more important, issues at hand. But the ads don't seem to acknowledge that if Fort Collins did decide to go forward with city-run internet—at an estimated cost of $150 million—it would be funded through utility bonds, which wouldn't be available to use on other issues, like road repairs.
"The broadband budget is going to be funded 100 percent through subscriber fees," Atkins noted. "If you don't build the network, it doesn't magically create $150 million to spend on something else."
And, again, the ballot measure is just to open the door to possibility; Why put so much effort and money into a campaign against starting a conversation?
But Big Telecom has a history of opposing municipal broadband initiatives. It has gone to extreme lengths, from suing the FCC to throwing around money in local elections, including in nearby Longmont, Colorado. In 2011, a remarkably similar anti-muninet campaign, also supported by the CCTA, spent more than $300,000 to oppose a ballot measure in Longmont. But Longmont residents voted in favor of the measure, and the town's municipal broadband network lit up in 2014.
Akins is eagerly awaiting November, when the city will find out if voters followed in Longmont's footsteps. He told me his totally unofficial guesstimate: the measure will pass, but just barely.
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