JOHNSTOWN, COLO — One man who knows both the information technology side of the internet and the elected official side of government can sum up local governments jumping into the broadband business in four words.
“Broadband is not simple,” said Johnstown City Councilman Troy Mellon. Mellon has made his personal living as an internet network engineer, and for the past 20 years, he’s served on the Johnstown Town Council as both a councilman and mayor.
Johnstown is located about 10 miles southwest of Greeley in Weld County. It is one of the fastest-growing communities in Colorado. Government officials there boast a debt-free budget.
“I’ve been on the mechanical network side of the house and the government philosophy side of the house,” said Mellon, who aside from serving on the town council is the Sr. Engineer for Banner Health, overseeing its network in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada and California. “Seeing it from both sides, it’s not something government wants to be in.”
Mellon said by getting into municipal broadband, the government is entering a space that is already being provided for by private industry. Citizens should be concerned anytime the government wants to tinker in private industry, he said.
It causes him concern for many reasons.
“It’s not the government’s position to do that,” he said. “And I don’t think the government can do it better.”
Municipal broadband has been all the rage along the front range for the past several years and continues to gain traction, in part due to an unproven public perception that municipalities can supply a superior service at a lesser cost. Voters have approved millions in new debt to take on a decades-old private industry based on the idea that government-run internet service will be faster, more reliable and cheaper. Voters are told the economic development of the city will improve, and that the city will be able to partner with its anchor institutions to offer super-fast speeds and improve their services.
For some communities, such as Fort Collins, Loveland and Longmont the answer has been to go it alone by developing, installing and operating a new utility all on their own, using other city-run utilities to back the multi-million dollar investments. Those communities all operate their own electric utility, so their municipal broadband bonds are guaranteed against their electric enterprise revenues. If the broadband venture fails, electric customers will see their rates increase. Others such as Fort Morgan and Centennial — and possibliy Greeley — have entered into public/private partnerships with internet providers.
Complete Colorado has investigated, extensively, the other side of the issue. Mellon’s perspective is unique to the topic because he understands both sides.
“People get frustrated in a part of town where maybe they only have a couple of options and in their opinion, it is not reliable,” Mellon said. “They think government should come in and swoop down and fix the problem. But that’s not why we’re here.”
Mellon said he’s faced that very issue in Johnstown with what he calls the RF black hole of the world in downtown where cell phone service is nonexistent.
“It doesn’t matter what service you have,” he said. “None of the big three work. That has been the drumbeat for 20 years, why can’t we fix the cell service.”
Mellon said fiber will have the same issue, agreeing with Comcast and others who have said they won’t lease fiber laid by the government because they don’t have control over issues that may arise.
“For that and other reasons,” Mellon said. “All fiber isn’t created equal from just a mechanical point of view. You have one kind that runs for one reason, and others that run for another reason.”
Mellon said Johnstown has explored the idea of requiring new development to include empty underground conduit that providers can fill later, but even that is a bad idea, he said
“Conduit has to go from somewhere to somewhere, and you don’t know how a prospective broadband operator is going to run their fiber,” Mellon said. “Plus, you have to protect that conduit. If there is fiber in it, and a backhoe or something hits it, you know it. If a backhoe hits it empty, you won’t know it. You have to find a way to protect that.”
Perhaps the biggest issue for Mellon, however, is the privacy issue.
“When municipalities get involved in broadband, they are getting involved in people’s data and moving that data around,” he said. “You will have net neutrality issues and data privacy issues. Do we really want our governments having the ability to look down into our data streams and see what we’re doing?”
Mellon said the idea of “smart cities,” which many proponents of municipal broadband push as the main reason for the investment, could expand beyond the promises of simply using the technology to manage traffic control devices, detect water main leaks, read meters, etc. It could include many other more invasive things.
“Depends on how smart you want your city,” he said. “They already use Bluetooth pings off of cell phones to monitor traffic flows. If they know the unique identifiers to your phone, they can track you on the road. There is more of a vested interest for private companies to protect your privacy than government.”
In the end, Mellon said government investing in technology that is rapidly evolving is not a proper role.
“5G is another game-changer in how home service will be delivered,” he said, calling equipment and infrastructure perishable, with lifespans of 5-7 years at most. “People have cars that last longer than that. We will be cutting the wire. The next evolution of the system will be a little receiver in your window that picks up the service and then redistributes it around your house the way you want.”
Mellon added that private companies, which already offering speeds faster than municipal broadband, invest billions yearly to keep up with the changes in the industry.
“Fiber is not future proof,” he said. “I’d maybe call it future resistant, but there is going to be a time where there is a breakthrough in transmission technology where something is bigger, better and faster. There is always a push for bigger, better and faster. You can get stuck behind technology quickly if you bet on the wrong horse. Governments are not set up for that kind of turnover.”