Case Study: Fort Collins’ Broadband Journey

ARTICLE | Dec 10, 2019

Alliance for Innovation CEO Joel Carnes spoke with Darin Atteberry, City Manager of Fort Collins, CO about the City’s journey towards achieving high-speed municipal broadband.

Fort Collins’ path is filled with heroic action, stepping in to elevate internet service for their residents and businesses to the level necessary for them to thrive in the future economy.  Through choosing to challenge the norm, finding allies, and boldly facing challenges along the way, Fort Collins is on their Innovation Journey.

The Challenge

The resources Fort Collins as a community had in providing broadband and gig service was suboptimal. Fort Collins did not have the infrastructure to compete in the future economy, and prices for gig service were incredibly high, making it difficult for people to afford the services they needed. Ultimately when analyzing their situation Darin and other City leaders realized, “…we were not poised for the future from what we consider now a basic infrastructure standpoint - and that's broadband.  Broadband is not just nice to have.  It’s something that we're seeing as a basic utility”.

Building the Case

One entity in Fort Collins that was looking toward the future of their broadband service was Colorado State University. The University was interested in the University Next Generation Innovation project, or Gig.U, which helps leading research universities accelerate the deployment of ultra-high speed networks in their universities and communities.  The university’s interest and willingness to take action towards high-speed broadband was a clear demonstration of the community’s desire to explore possible solutions. Understanding the norm and culture around broadband in Fort Collins, the City decided to begin talking about this issue in their Futures Committee, a subcommittee on their City Council, and began to think about how to make this happen in their community.

When assessing their community, Fort Collins realized that their market for broadband was more business than residential. Through grassroots resident advocacy along with the Futures Committee, and coupling that with the needs of the University, they were able to begin a movement towards high-speed service. The first step in this was speaking to the providers that were already providing internet service in Fort Collins to assess their willingness to improve service and reach high-speed, reasonably priced gig service for the community. With the incumbent service providers unable and/or not willing to improve infrastructure, Fort Collins had an even greater call to action as it was evident that if they wanted this change in their community it was up to them to make it happen.

Finding Allies

The first step was to enlist the advice and help of others who had attempted their own municipal broadband services. Working with contacts through Alliance for Innovation, the team from Fort Collins connected with successful and unsuccessful municipal broadband sites. They learned what made municipal broadband successful and what can cause these programs to fail. This exploration helped the organization realize that they could achieve this goal, even if this was not a core competency of theirs. After this exploration, Fort Collins decided to ask the voters if they could join the telecommunications space, as a state law prohibited governments from entering the broadband business or exploring it without the voters’ permission. Voters approved the measure at 83%, allowing the city to study broadband and alternative solutions.

With the help of community partners and residents, the City explored various options to bring high-speed internet to Fort Collins initially focusing on finding 3rd parties willing to partner with the City. Finding the right partner proved challenging, and ultimately the city decided to move forward on its own. After determining a municipal broadband retail model was the way  to go, Fort Collins’ City Council asked the voters if they wanted the city to develop a broadband utility understanding the challenges and cost that come with the endeavor. This campaign for municipal broadband was supported by a grassroots citizens’ group, “Broadband & Beers”, who fund raised to support the measure and rallied support for the idea through public meetings and events. The efforts of this grassroots group helped educate the community and generate excitement about broadband coming to their neighborhood. At the November 2017 Special Election, the measure to allow the City to establish its own broadband network passed with 57% of the vote, and is where Fort Collins truly crossed the threshold, going “all in” on making this happen.

Some Translation Required

Fort Collins is currently under construction of their broadband system and is about two quarters in on a three year build out process. Darin emphasized that, “The build is really, really important” as they need to build future-proof infrastructure while also being mindful about going into people’s neighborhoods to create it. However, Fort Collins said one of their greatest issues was, “the city mothership culture versus the startup culture in the broadband utility” and building the back-office for a broadband startup. It has been a cultural challenge to build a new customer support and billing system and attempt to be nimble and adapt quickly to the market, in such a centralized organization. To help with connecting the two cultures Fort Collins created an “Integrator” position who helps connect the broadband utility office and translate what the startup broadband utility means to the greater organization “because of the different languages that the startup and the mothership speak”. This Integrator role has been essential in the cultural translation problem and has been essential in leading the progress on broadband.

Success on Multiple Levels

Ultimately, the reward for Fort Collins on this journey was not just the broadband utility itself, but also developing the organization’s integration of a startup in their existing city organization. The ability to build, support, and foster this startup within their centralized organization proved their capacity to successfully innovate and take bold action in the community. Furthermore, a key element for Fort Collins in reaching this success was the dedication of an “Integrator” position to help guide the process and serve as a connector between the centralized organization and the startup. Understanding the importance of unifying two cultures in a single organization and being able to do it well has been the true reward and success for Fort Collins on their journey for broadband.

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