Infrastructure & Environment

How One Colorado City Broke the Cable Industry’s Grip on the Internet

November 7, 2013
 

In 2009, Vince Jordan was one of a handful of Coloradans hoping to flip the switch on a next-generation fiber optic network in his area. Longmont's 17-mile loop of fiber would have been capable of connecting Jordan to the Web at speeds 100 times faster than the national average. The city owned the cables already. All it needed was approval from the city's voters.

But Jordan, the broadband manager for Longmont's public electric utility, failed to anticipate one thing: The cable companies.

"We got creamed," he says. "We lost by 12 [percentage points] in that vote."

On that election night four years ago, they were caught flat-footed. The cable industry had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into thwarting its prospective government-owned challenger at the polls. It dwarfed the advocates' expenditures, which that year amounted to all of $95.

That history made last night's election results particularly sweet for the city's municipal fiber advocates. Longmont residents approved a $45.3 million bond issuance that will go toward funding a city-wide fiber network. But recent political fights haven't always had a happy ending for advocates of municipal broadband projects.

Cable incumbents have been fighting to defeat municipal fiber proposals all over the country. We recently reported that cable groups invested money to defeat Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, a municipal fiber supporter. (For the record, Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokesperson, denied Tuesday that the company's political contributions had any connection with McGinn's broadband policies. She says Comcast has contributed consistently to the Seattle Broadband Communications Coalition of Washington over the past five years.) In early returns Tuesday, McGinn was trailing challenger Ed Murray, 56-44.

But the battle of Seattle is far from the only time advocates of new broadband initiatives have crossed swords with incumbent cable companies. Across the United States, cable lobbyists have helped erect legal barriers to stifle competition from public utilities. Industry groups have repeatedly filed lawsuits to block city attempts to roll out fiber service. And they have also opposed public referendums to allow cities to build their own networks.

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