Eagle Town Council passes on $10M investment in municipal broadband
Town Council members say they want to support better internet in town, but prefer phased approach to this ‘all-in’ option
The Eagle Town Council voted to pump the brakes on a $10 million investment in municipal broadband and directed staff to look into a more phased approach to improve internet service without taking on as much debt.
After postponing a previously scheduled vote on what Mayor Scott Turnipseed called “the biggest decision we will ever make,“ Town Council members rejected a resolution to take out a $10 million bond to build a fiber-optic network and offer town-owned broadband service to residents.
“No one’s disagreeing that everyone would like cheap, fast internet,” Turnipseed said after a lengthy public hearing Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of how we achieve that.”
A financing plan for the project was presented before the Town Council at its Oct. 26 meeting. Members voted to table the matter to get more information from staff on whether the project is worth taking on so much debt given that Comcast has been working to bring service to more areas of Eagle.
Research conducted by town staff over the past two weeks showed that a municipal broadband network would bring better and more affordable service to Eagle residents and business owners, according to reports included in the agenda packet of Tuesday’s meeting.
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A 2019 survey cited in the reports showed significant buy-in from residents and business owners, 77% of whom indicated interest in switching to town-run internet service over the options offered by private service providers.
Town staff presented two main options as far as how the Town Council could move forward.
Option 1 was to “move forward with the financing terms and work with Alpine Bank and bond counsel to finalize the financing so that staff can begin construction with the firm that was approved this year,” according to the report. The “firm” is Uptown Services, a telecommunications consulting firm hired by the town to help secure financing to build out a larger fiber-optic broadband network.
In short, a large, aggressive investment in infrastructure to offer publicly run internet service.
Option 2 is not to move forward with the financing plan and stick with the current fiber connections the town has through a partnership with THOR, a “middle mile” broadband project coordinated by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
This option would provide middle-mile THOR access to the internet service providers currently operating in the town. The town could also invest in utilizing THOR for its own needs and smaller projects like providing public Wi-Fi downtown and in public parks or investing in “Smart City” initiatives like internet-powered parking enforcement or traffic control.
In short, the option makes the most of the infrastructure the town already has.
Turnipseed pushed back against this bifurcation Tuesday, saying that the town should not close itself off to other options when it comes to the potential expansion of the town’s fiber-optic network.
Town Council member Janet Bartnik also expressed a desire to find a middle ground option to supplement private sector offerings without taking on so much debt.
Council member David Gaboury echoed this sentiment, suggesting that they take a bit more time to look at the areas in town where internet service is poorest and address those first. He and Mayor Pro Tem Mikel “Pappy” Kerst said they were not in support of a $10 million investment.
Passing on the $10 million investment at this stage does not prevent the town from expanding municipal broadband in the future, Turnipseed pointed out. The town has 60 days to respond to Alpine Bank as to whether it wants to make use of the financing plan that Uptown Services negotiated with the local bank.
Town Council member Geoff Grimmer once again came out in support of going all in to build out a town-run broadband service. He pointed to the town’s commitments to “economic vitality,” “economic resiliency” and “supporting quality of life” as weighing in favor of moving forward with the investment.
“If we have every faith that our staff can take this thing and hit it out of the park, then we go,” Grimmer said. “… I just think this is a win across the board.”
Grimmer made a motion to approve town staff’s first option to go all-in with the $10 million investment but, without a second, the motion died.
Andy Davis, director of regulatory and government affairs for Comcast, refuted many of the claims made in the town staff report regarding the benefits of internet services operated by the town when compared to Comcast’s offerings.
First, town staff’s claim that Comcast does not support “net neutrality” — the idea that service providers must treat (and charge) all internet communications equally despite factors like user, content, platform, location or method of communication — is incorrect, Davis said.
Davis also refuted the price comparison points provided by staff, saying Comcast’s price points are actually a bit lower than is represented even after its 12-month promotional offers expire.
Town staff’s analysis put municipal broadband at $70 per month for unlimited data compared to Comcast’s $100 per month with a data cap and $130 per month for unlimited data, according to the report. Even with Davis’ numbers, the monthly rate of the town’s broadband would still be significantly cheaper.
Comcast’s expansion into Eagle is set to be finished next year, at which point the company will be able to service most of the town except for The Highlands at Eagle Ranch and a few other low-density areas, Davis said at the Oct. 26 Town Council meeting.
“One of the challenges for all of you is taking on an enormous amount of debt to do a project when you’ve got us building it for free,” Davis said then. “… We’ve got, I would say, a more broad and more robust set of capabilities.”
While the results of the 2019 survey showed support for municipal broadband, public comment submitted since the Oct. 26 discussion was quite mixed.
Eagle County Schools submitted a letter that spoke to the increased importance of strong internet connection in the new era of learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has accelerated the reliance on internet service for the delivery of content and instruction,” Superintendent Philip Qualman said in the emailed letter. “A comprehensive fiber network throughout the Town of Eagle would provide outstanding 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, also voiced their support for the investment in broadband, saying the town’s poor internet service has impacted their ability to run their businesses effectively.
Conner said the internet service in her studio is “worse than dial-up.” Leith called the coffee shop’s internet service, “barely workable … causing us delays, lost tickets and slow put-through for our guests.”
Others said the cost and risk associated with taking on $10 million in debt outweigh any benefits of town-funded broadband.
Kenneth Sexton, an assessment geographic information system specialist with Eagle County Government, said it was not worth the investment, “especially since it is tied to our wastewater enterprise fund.”
“We have options available to us with CenturyLink, Comcast and Starlink,” Sexton said in an emailed comment.
“Internet technology changes rapidly and there are plenty of private companies who have years of experience in this arena,” another resident wrote in an emailed statement. “Setting the town up for debt expenses when private companies are doing this already does not seem a prudent thing to do with taxpayer money.”
Ultimately, the Town Council directed staff to look into a more phased approach to maximize use of the town’s current fiber connections and, potentially, expand into areas with especially poor internet service. A work session is set for Dec. 7 to discuss ways to move forward.
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org