Longmont, Colorado votes to take on Comcast, CenturyLink

Tom Paine

Voters in Longmont, Colorado passed a referendum this week that will allow the city to utilize a 17 mile fiber optic loop that is mostly dark today to offer competitive, commercial telecom and cable services to businesses and residents there. The loop was installed by a local power utility in the 1990's at a cost of $1.1 million, and is only used today by a few public agencies and a local hospital. Comcast and incumbent local telco CenturyLink (formerly Qwest) are the two major established competitors there. Longmont is a city of about 86,000 people in Boulder County.

The passing of the referendum does not mean any services will be immediately available in Longmont, but only that Longmont can now legally consider offering them. A Colorado law passed in 2005 prohibits municipalities from offering commercial services using publicly owned infrastructure without voter approval. An effort backed by the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, which includes Comcast, is reported to have spent $300,000 on a campaign aimed at defeating the referendum, which passed with about 60% of the vote. The Cable industry objects to
competing with government entities which do not face the same taxes, and also have power to regulate its competitors.

Although many advocates consider the outcome a major victory towards establishing more competition for Comcast, big questions remain unanswered. There is no business plan in place, nor did the referendum authorize any financial committment to the project, which is supposed to be self-financing. Seventeen miles of fiber by itself does not constitute a system. Longmont will probably look to bring in a commercial partner to help develop a service. This type of arrangement doesn't always work out, though, as people in Philadelphia well know from the Wireless Philadelphia experience.

With its unused fiber network, Longmont had pitched Google very hard to be chosen as the pilot city for its "Google Fiber" project, for which Kansas City, Kansas & Missouri were ultimately chosen.

Colorado has been a paticularly contentious state for Comcast's customer relations. Its frosty relationship with the ski resort town of Vail is one example.

The anti-utility sentiment in Colorado also showed up in the nearby city of Boulder, where voters narrowly passed referendums that could allow the city to take over the municipal energy franchise from Xcel Energy, the state's biggest electricity provider. In that case, though, much of voter fustration was driven by perceived mismanagement and cost overruns associated with a pilot "smart grid" project Xcel was trying to implement in Boulder, something that originally appealed to many in this environmentally conscious city. Others felt Xcel wasn't moving quickly enough on adding renewable energy sources.


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