Longmont, Colorado Muni Fiber Plan Awaits Voter OK

Published November 1, 2009

Residents of Longmont, Colorado in November will vote on a ballot question asking whether the city should get into the business of providing fiber-optic broadband services—perhaps the city’s last chance to breathe life into a plan that has failed to take off since it was conceived more than a decade ago.

In 1997 Longmont embarked on a bold quest to build a “community-owned” fiber-optic broadband network, the first such system in the state. Then-mayor Leona Stoecker promised the city’s fiber-to-the-home network would usher in a new era of “economic vitality” that would “afford all members of the community an equal opportunity to grow economically, intellectually, culturally, socially, and with diversity.”

None of those dreams came true. By 2001 the city’s partner in the endeavor, Adesta Communications, filed for bankruptcy and defaulted on its contract. Longmont taxpayers were left with a partially built fiber-optic system that has turned into a black hole of public funds and civic energy.

Unsurprised by Failure

Richard Bennett, a Livermore, California-based telecommunications network architect and policy consultant, says municipal governments are not very good at running advanced telecommunications services.

“The track record of municipal broadband projects is mixed at best,” Bennett said.

Bennett notes municipal governments often fail to succeed in the telecommunications business because they lack the expertise to provide the wide and growing variety of services the free market provides.

“In general, [municipal governments] do not succeed unless they offer TV and telephone services as well as Internet access—which [also] means that the choice of channels to carry on the TV system becomes a political issue,” Bennett explained.

State Law Forced Vote

A 2005 Colorado law bans cities from providing telecommunications or cable services on their own, which is why the city council must ask Longmont’s residents for permission.

Tom Roiniotis, director of power and communications for the City of Longmont, says if residents vote for the city government of Longmont to set up and run telecommunications services, those services may end up being managed by a private-sector company anyway.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.