Manitou lays groundwork for community broadband network

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Last summer, the Manitou Springs Community Library wanted to host the Portal, a videoconferencing program housed in a gold storage container that connected local residents with other communities throughout the world.

The library had to defer to the Manitou Art Center, which had to boost its internet service several times to accommodate the Portal.

“We still have issues with our Makerspace folks, who pay a lot of money for extra-fast service,” said MAC Executive Director Natalie Johnson.

“There are businesses that are not able to move into town due to our current broadband needs,” said Johnson, who also serves as Manitou’s economic development director. “If they have to do a lot of large uploads, it would be really difficult to conduct business with our current systems.”

Within the next few years, that could change. Manitou is completing the conduit infrastructure it will need to string fiber-optic cable through town and is exploring ways in which the city could provide high-speed internet through a community broadband service.

Conduit was laid through downtown Manitou when the city constructed a series of improvements. The Manitou Springs Urban Renewal Authority Board put up the money to install conduit along east Manitou Avenue when the road was excavated during the Westside Avenue Action Plan project.

In addition, the city negotiated with Colorado Springs Utilities to take over a 30-inch water line the utility abandoned when it installed a new pipeline along El Paso Boulevard.

“Provided everything falls into place, two-thirds of the infrastructure is in place,” Johnson said.

Two pieces are missing: conduit at the west end of town, and a connection to a gigabit point of presence (gigapop) that would give the city access to a high-speed network that supports data transfer speeds of 1 gigabit per second or more.

The city could make that connection at access points in either Green Mountain Falls or downtown Colorado Springs.

Johnson thinks the infrastructure could be completed by the end of this year. Then the city would have to figure out how to complete a fiber-optic network and connect residents and businesses.

In November 2017, the city signed a contract with HR Green, a broadband consulting company, to explore its options.

“One of the things we’ve been asked to look at is the possibility of a public-private partnership, using the infrastructure the town has and installing the fiber system as the private side,” said John Merritt, municipal services manager at HR Green.

One carrier already has expressed interest, but many details remain to be worked out — including whether the city wants to take on the project at this time.

In the Nov. 7, 2017, election, more than 84 percent of Manitou citizens voted yes on a ballot measure to allow community broadband.

The Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 152 in 2005, restricting the ability of municipalities to provide telecommunications services to prevent governments from competing with private providers. The law provided, however, that communities could opt out of the law’s restriction by a vote.

As of May, about 120 communities had exempted themselves from the law.

Longmont, an early adopter, became a magnet for commercial customers that moved to the town specifically for the high internet speeds it offered.

Johnson, who spearheaded the campaign for Ballot Question 2C, said reliable, high-speed internet service could help attract both young families and new businesses to Manitou.

“In terms of diversifying our economy, broadband is an opportunity to do that,” she said. “It’s not meant to destroy private [ISP] businesses but to encourage healthy competition so they will provide better, cheaper, faster service.”

High-speed telecommunications could give Manitou a competitive advantage in attracting new businesses, said Ann Nichols, Manitou URA board chair.

“Pretty much every business benefits from having high-speed connections,” Nichols said. “It doesn’t really change who we would market to, but we could say that we have it. We don’t know how it’s going to play out, but we want to be a player.” 

Longmont lights up high-speed broadband service

Longmont, a city of about 94,000 people, laid the foundation for its NextLight fiber-optic broadband network in 1997. The city’s electric utility, Longmont Light & Power, created a 17-mile backbone loop in conjunction with the Platte River Power Authority.

The loop was used to monitor electric substations, water and wastewater systems and enhance communications for emergency services.

“We proposed to City Council at the time that if we added strands to the loop, it could be the basis for a city [internet] service,” said Scott Rochat, public relations and marketing specialist for Longmont Power & Communications. The council approved a $1.2 million project to do that.

In 2000, the city attempted a public-private partnership with telecom services firm Adesta. Before the preliminary work was completed, Adesta declared bankruptcy as the early 21st century tech bubble burst.

Longmont voters rejected a ballot measure to allow the city to offer telecommunications services in 2009, but two years later, after the city mounted an educational campaign, a similar measure passed.

The city then conducted a feasibility study, released in 2013.

“By this time it was clear that a private partner was not going to step forward,” Rochat said.

The city sent one more ballot measure to the voters, this time for a 15-year, $45.3 million bond issue.

“That passed by a bigger margin than the original ballot issue,” Rochat said.

Construction began in August 2014 and proceeded for the next two years.

“Our first customers came on in November 2014,” Rochat said. “Demand proved to be high. Our phones rang off the hook that first day. Our construction schedule needed to be accelerated.”

Charter customers could sign up for gigabit connections for $49.95 a month — “one of the best rates in the country,” he said.

The standard residential rate was $99.95 a month (it’s now $69.95), and commercial customers could subscribe at one of seven service levels, from 25 Mbps to 1 Gbps.

With a current customer count of about 18,000, the city is on track to pay off the bond issue in 2029 or earlier. The utility’s budget this year projects $12.4 million in revenues and $7.5 million in operating expenses.

“We’ve been offering municipal electric service since 1912,” Rochat said “That was First Light. This is NextLight.”