Eagle City Council awards $ 10 million investment in municipal broadband


Members of Eagle City Council are leading a discussion on a resolution to invest $ 10 million in a municipal broadband project, a resolution that was unsuccessful on Tuesday.
Screenshot of the live broadcast of the meeting

Eagle City Council voted to curb a $ 10 million investment in municipal broadband and asked staff to consider a more phased approach to improving Internet service without going into so much debt.

After postponing a previously scheduled vote on what Mayor Scott Turnipseed called “the biggest decision we’ve ever made,” city council members rejected a resolution to contract a $ 10 million bond to build a fiber optic network and offer city-owned broadband service to residents.

“No one disputes that everyone would like a cheap and fast Internet,” Turnipseed said after a lengthy public hearing on Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of how we do it.”

A financing plan for the project was presented to the municipal council at its meeting on October 26. Members voted to table the question in order to get more information from staff on whether the project is worth taking on so much debt given that Comcast has focused on providing services to more. Eagle areas.

Research by city staff over the past two weeks has shown that a municipal broadband network would provide better and more affordable service to Eagle residents and business owners, according to reports included in the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

A 2019 survey cited in the reports showed strong buy-in from residents and business owners, 77% of whom said they wanted to switch to a city-run internet service rather than the options offered by service providers. private.

City staff presented two main options as to how city council could move forward.

Option 1 was to “go ahead with the financing terms and work with Alpine Bank and the bond board to finalize the financing so that staff can start construction with the company that was approved this year”, according to the report. The “company” is Uptown Services, a telecommunications consulting company hired by the city to help secure funding to build a larger fiber-optic broadband network.

In short, a large and aggressive investment in infrastructure to deliver state-run internet service.

Option 2 is to not go ahead with the financing plan and stick to the city’s current fiber optic connections through a partnership with THOR, a “middle” broadband project coordinated by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

This option would provide mid-mile THOR access to ISPs currently operating in the city. The city could also invest in using THOR for its own needs and smaller projects, such as providing public Wi-Fi in the city center and in public parks, or in “city” initiatives. intelligent ”such as parking law enforcement or traffic control via the Internet.

In short, the option makes the most of the infrastructure the city already has.

Turnipseed opposed the bifurcation on Tuesday, saying the city should not be closed to other options regarding the potential expansion of the city’s fiber optic network.

Janet Bartnik, a member of the city council, also expressed the wish to find an intermediate option to complement the offers of the private sector without going into so much debt.

Council member David Gaboury echoed the sentiment, suggesting they take a little more time to examine areas of the city where internet service is poorest and tackle those first. this. He and Pro Mayor Tem Mikel “Pappy” Kerst said they were not in favor of a $ 10 million investment.

The transfer of the $ 10 million investment at this point does not prevent the city from expanding municipal broadband in the future, Turnipseed said. The city has 60 days to respond to Alpine Bank to see if it wants to use the financing plan that Uptown Services has negotiated with the local bank.

City council member Geoff Grimmer spoke again in favor of a city-run broadband service. He stressed that the city’s commitments to “economic vitality”, “economic resilience” and “support for quality of life” weighed in favor of continued investment.

“If we’re confident that our staff can take this thing and get it out of the park, then we’re going,” Grimmer said. “… I just think it’s a win across the board.”

Grimmer put forward a motion to approve the city’s staff’s first option to go all-out with the $ 10 million investment, but, without a second, the motion died.

Andy Davis, Comcast’s director of regulatory and government affairs, refuted many of the claims made in the city staff report about the advantages of city-operated Internet services over Comcast’s offerings.

First, the claim by city staff that Comcast does not support “net neutrality” – the idea that service providers should treat (and charge for) all Internet communications equally despite factors such as user, content, platform, location, or method of communication – is incorrect, Davis said. .

Davis also refuted the price comparison points provided by staff, saying that Comcast’s prices are in fact a little lower than pictured even after its 12-month promotional offers expire.

City staff analysis valued municipal broadband at $ 70 per month for unlimited data, compared to $ 100 per month for Comcast with a data cap and $ 130 per month for unlimited data, according to the report. Even with Davis’ numbers, the city’s monthly broadband rate would still be significantly cheaper.

Comcast’s expansion into Eagle is expected to be completed next year, by which time the company will be able to service most of the city, with the exception of the Highlands at Eagle Ranch and a few other low density areas, a Davis said at the October 26 meeting. Board meeting.

“One of the challenges for all of you is taking a huge debt to do a project when you had us build for free,” Davis said. “… We have, I would say, a larger and more robust set of capabilities. “

While the 2019 survey results showed support for municipal broadband, public comments submitted since the October 26 discussion were quite mixed.

Schools in Eagle County submitted a letter discussing the growing importance of a strong internet connection in the new era of learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has accelerated reliance on the Internet service for the delivery of content and instructions,” Superintendent Philip Qualman said in the emailed letter. “A full fiber optic network throughout the town of Eagle would provide exceptional service at a reasonable rate. (Eagle County Schools) supports this proposal and would be interested in connecting schools to the network.

Local business owners, including Kat Conner, of Katch Studio, and Marci Leith, of Yeti’s Grind, have also expressed support for investing in broadband, saying the city’s poor internet service has had an impact. on their ability to effectively manage their businesses.

Conner said the internet service in his studio was “worse than dial-up”. Leith called the cafe’s internet service “barely workable … which has caused us delays, lost tickets and slow transmission for our customers.”

Others said the costs and risks associated with $ 10 million in debt outweighed the benefits of city-funded broadband.

Kenneth Sexton, Geographic Information Systems Assessment Specialist with the Eagle County Government, said the investment was not worth it, “especially since it is tied to our fund. company for wastewater “.

“We have options available to us with CenturyLink, Comcast and Starlink,” Sexton said in an emailed comment.

“Internet technology is changing rapidly and many private companies have years of experience in this area,” another resident wrote in an emailed statement. “Putting up the city for debt spending when private companies already do it doesn’t seem like a prudent thing to do with taxpayer dollars. “

Ultimately, city council asked staff to consider a more phased approach to maximize use of the city’s current fiber optic connections and potentially expand into areas with particularly poor internet service. A working session is scheduled for December 7 to discuss ways forward.

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