Business/Economy, debt, Featured, Sherrie Peif

5G Wireless technology could cause early end for municipal broadband

DENVER — It took more than two decades for Internet speeds to increase exponentially from 56K dialup to Gigabyte (Gig) high speed. It will only take the next couple years, however, to shift the focus from how fast the speed can get to who will offer it first and most reliably for the best price.

Even those behind the scenes are jumping one ship for another in the race to service.

In fact, the man behind Longmont’s municipally-owned NextLight, Tom Roiniotis, retired from Longmont in 2018 after getting that municipal broadband effort up and running, and is now working at T-Mobile as its director of Municipal Broadband Partnerships.

Municipal broadband is a growing, though contentious, movement in providing Internet service, leaving private-sector companies such as Comcast and Century Link searching for new ways to keep customers on board. Communities are beginning to offer their own service because, they claim, some customers are getting left behind in the ability to get Gig service.

Municipal broadband partnerships are a hybrid between full municipal control and a system where the government pays for the infrastructure and then contracts with an internet provider to run it.

However, some argue 5G wireless may be the answer and send hardwired internet to the same grave mobile phones sent land lines.

5G services are expected to revolutionize how people connect to the Internet, with more and more people opting to get their news, music, movies and television on their mobile devices, and businesses making working remotely easier through tablets and data plans. iPads and other tablets now offer high storage limits and software capabilities that rival hardwired, bulky computers.

The more mobile consumers become, the less need for home and business, land-based, wired Internet and television services.

While Gig service is available in many markets across Colorado through Comcast and Century Link, increasing its availability requires large investments in new infrastructure, and local officials say the companies are not willing or able to make those investments.

Yet, the questions around municipal broadband are just as numerous. As 5G service begins to rollout from wireless cell phone companies, many question if the investment in municipal broadband is wise and whether it will bring high speed, or just high liability, to customers.

Longmont was the first major municipality in Colorado to go all in for broadband service. In 2017, after several years of work, Longmont launched its NextLight utility service, which boasts no data caps and 1G speed for under $70 a month.

Fort Collins was soon to follow with voters agreeing in 2017 to $145 million in bonds to move forward with a similar utility there.

And earlier this year, Loveland City Council chose to skip asking its voters for approval to issue nearly $100 million in utility bonds for its own broadband utility.

In all three cases, the bonds are secured by the cities’ electrical utilities. Should something go wrong with the venture, residents who get their power though the city-owned electric utilities will see in immediate increase in those bills to pay off the broadband — regardless of whether they subscribed to the service.

However, as more and more communities are considering whether to compete in the broadband market, telecommunication giants such as Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint are also in the game, and some experts say the introduction of 5G wireless may kill the municipal broadband effort because the old way of hard wiring will become nonexistent.

Verizon rolled out 5G service in Chicago and Minneapolis just a few weeks ago and Samsung is offering a Galaxy S10 5G capable phone exclusive to Verizon customers to start. Initial speed tests on the phone registered faster than Gig speeds in some areas.

T-Mobile, which is merging with Sprint, is building its 5G network on unused UHF Television frequencies that the company claims will revolutionize high speed internet.

And AT&T is already offering 5G service in more than a dozen cities nationwide, with more planned for this year.

It’s what is known as the “last mile” of connection problems with standard broadband that many believe will be the reason 5G eventually saturates the market and kills municipal broadband, leaving customers behind to pay the millions in bond debt through higher electric rates.

The last mile is the distance of cabling, fiber, or other internet delivery infrastructure that is needed to reach a customer’s modem. It may or may not be an actual mile in length. It is a term used to represent the final section to deliver service.

In fact, Comcast (Xfinity) has already began partnerships with wireless providers to offer its own mobile service. Some predict those partnerships will expand to provide full home and business  Internet services wirelessly, bypassing the need for fiber optics altogether.

Loveland City Councilman Don Overcash, however, compares the fiber Loveland will install to a highway that, he says, companies such as Comcast and Century Link could lease to continue to supply their products, which would in turn give people even more choices and lower prices.

“The fiber laid today is the foundation of the future of technology and needs taken care of regardless,” Overcash said. “You have to build the highway regardless of if the vehicles will change. The investment in fiber is going to ensure that we can capitalize on technology to keep going forward.”

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