Greeley, Municipal Broadband, Sherrie Peif

Greeley looking to push internet competition after putting the skids on municipal broadband

GREELEY — In the weeks since the Greeley City Council put the skids on any plans to develop a municipal broadband network or partner with a private provider, the city’s staff has been trying to determine what’s next for the community as they regroup from what many inside say was a huge disappointment.

Greeley, which recently surpassed Boulder as the 11th largest municipality in Colorado, is the only community its size north of Longmont that has chosen not to get into the broadband business in some manner.

But that doesn’t appear to be slowing city staff from finding ways to get Greeley involved in incentives to lure other companies to do business in Greeley. Those incentives are yet to be known in full, but include changing right-of-way access to homes, which could result in thousands of backyards being dug up without owners having any say.

Supporters are still frustrated and want to find alternative ways to push Comcast into lower prices and what they perceive as better customer service. However, turning away from the popular, but financially risky municipal ownership movement created new dialogue among city employees and task force members highlighting how government can best attract private industry without spending taxpayer dollars, or picking winners and losers.

The task force of about a half-dozen or more residents and business owners was created to look at solutions for Greeley about a year ago. They met recently via zoom for the first time since city council members said they preferred working with existing providers over financing any kind of alternative. During the meeting, members of the committee expressed their disappointment in the council’s decision not to move forward with their recommendation to partner with an outside company.

“It felt like there was really no appetite to do this in the first place,” said task force chairman Bret Naber, an IT specialist at the University of Northern Colorado. “For me that was the biggest disappointment. It was work we wouldn’t have had to do had we known their position was pretty far toward the end of not wanting to have the city pledging a part of it. I just don’t think it was something they were interested in.”

The task force was created after city residents agreed to entertain the idea of creating a municipal broadband enterprise by opting out of Senate Bill 05-152.

Passed in 2005, SB 152 was initially designed to allow rural communities to offer their residents options for high-speed internet because many traditional private companies didn’t see value in the investment.

It required local communities to ask voters first if they would support the municipality investigating the option. However, a successful 152 vote did not commit a community to offering its own broadband as a utility, neither did creating the exploratory committee that met for nearly a year investigating its options. The group didn’t see it that way, however, and at least one member went into the group focused on finding any alternative to Comcast, admitting her bias against the company from the start.

The task force was given five choices to consider, including maintaining status quo, but throughout their study, the option was never considered because they repeatedly said they believed by just forming the group the city wanted more.

Council members said they were frustrated that the group didn’t bring them their opinions on all the options, and in the end, they had to do what they felt was best for the community and picking winners and losers in a private commercial industry was not it.

“I don’t think we can regulate business so that competition is fair and equal to everybody,” Councilman Mike Fitzsimmons said.

Most all the task force members felt like the council had its mind made up before hearing the presentation.

“It was odd for me,” said task force member Amy Dugan, who is retired from Verizon Wireless. “We went into this thinking there was interest, but there wasn’t. I think minds were already made up before we got in the door.”

Task force member Trent Howell, an instructor at Aims Community College, agreed, adding he was more confused than ever.

“We spent a lot of time talking about what our purpose was and our goals,” Howell said. “I don’t think there was any more work the committee could have done. I don’t know if it was a task force to demonstrate the conversation was happening, but it seems the council Is looking for a free market solution to what seems to be a failure of the marketplace.”

The group debated what their next steps were, with city staff wanting to continue the group in some capacity to help fulfill the council’s wishes. That discussion led to even more misunderstandings about what the group was charged with.

Task force member Lavonna Longwell, who says she lives on the east side of town where the homes are predominantly older, was most frustrated, admitting her dislike for Comcast, and repeating she would like to see the city find any alternative to the internet giant. She didn’t understand why the council wouldn’t look at partnering with Allo Communications out of Nebraska, who promised gigabyte service to all of Greeley.

The ensuing conversation exposed the trouble with municipal broadband promises to fix delivery issues.

Comcast had previously told the task force that all homes in Greeley that get internet through the provider have access to gigabyte speed. Longwell wants to push Comcast to make good on that promise, including in situations where the speed limitation are beyond the provider’s control.

The confusion comes with outdated wiring in a home or business. Even in cases where a provider (including municipal services) can bring gig service to the box outside the structure, if the wiring in the structure is old or damaged, the service is not available. That is not on the provider to fix.

“All the cities that do city broadband would not pay for cabling into a house,” Naber said. “None of that would have come with a city broadband for what it’s worth. That is a huge cost. There is no way a vendor can pick that up.”

Naber went on to say there are just some costs associated with utilities that are still the responsibility of the homeowner, and any amount of new providers in Greeley would likely not solve Longwell’s issues at her home.

“I had a sewer line break off my curb,” Naber said. “It was a lot more than a couple hundred dollars. Those are things that are part of owning a residence. I just don’t think that it’s something that we can really push back on Comcast and say this is your responsibility. It’s crazy honestly. There is no way they can do that.”

The group also discussed the city councilmembers’ concerns about why companies that claim Greeley is a great opportunity to do business in, won’t come without city incentives.

Greeley’s director of information technology, Scott Magerfleisch, said they spoke to Allo after the decision, and Allo admitted they couldn’t make it work financially without some sort of city investment because the current right-of-way structure in Greeley primarily goes down the front of the homes.

“Then you can spur off to homes on both sides,” Magerfleisch said. “We are looking into if Greeley can change its right-of-way for fiber paths.”

If Greeley were to change that structure to also go down the back side of homes, Allo or any other broadband company could lay the fiber at a much-reduced cost, Magerfleisch said, but those changes to city code would come at a cost of convenience and land to homeowners.

Magerfleisch said the city is talking to other providers in addition to Allo and looking into other incentives but could not disclose them. He did say, however, that to comply with council wishes all incentives would be offered to any provider, including Comcast and Century Link if they wished to upgrade their current infrastructure.

“We are making sure we adhere to the council’s direction that we work with our current providers,” Magerfleisch said. “We are trying to expand the possibility that the number of current service providers we have today is different in six months, nine months, whenever and that we are doing everything we can as a city to enable those providers to come into the city and provide business.

“What we can do is we can look at what are some of the opportunities that these service providers would need in order to make Greeley an attractive business or market to enter into. We can’t go into this saying we are looking at a benefit or an incentive or an opportunity that we would give to Allo. We would be looking at what is a service, benefit or incentive to any provider in order to encourage that kind of competition. We can enter into agreement with them that is available to everyone.”

There was no decision made as to when the group would meet next. Magerfleisch said he was going to find out from council if it wanted a liaison to meet with the task force as well to help further the talks.

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