Alliance for Innovation CEO Joel Carnes spoke with Darin Atteberry, City Manager of Fort Collins, CO, about the city’s journey in achieving high-speed municipal broadband. Through their conversation, it is realized that Darin and Fort Collins’ path to broadband was ultimately a path to transformative organizational change as they created a broadband startup within their existing organization.
What was internet service in Fort Collins like prior to starting this broadband initiative?
“It was suboptimal. Pricing was all over the board. And from an equity standpoint, given that there was little to no competition, they could, if someone truly needed gig service, charge ridiculous rates for people to get that.
Broadband is not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s something that we see as a basic utility.”
What was the point of no return? How did you move from exploration to commitment?
“We listened to the voice of our customers. There were two times along the way where we asked the voters if they were interested in pursuing this. Senate Bill 152 basically said for cities to talk about gig, getting into the broadband business, or talking about various options, you need to ask your voters if they’ll give you permission to do that — so you could exempt out of this state law if your voters approved it. They voted to approve at 87%.
Ultimately, before we went forward, City Council asked voters whether they wanted the City to develop a broadband utility, and whether they approved of us issuing $140 million in bonds to fund it. And that measure passed at 57%.”
Crossing the Threshold: Another Answer
“The campaign for broadband was a grassroots group of millennials, boomers, community members of all ages who believed in Fort Collins’ future — better technology, better access. They raised $15,000 to support the broadband campaign.
The incumbent providers raised nearly $1.1 million to oppose it. It was the most money raised for any municipal election in Fort Collins’ history, to oppose this broadband utility.”
The easy path is the voters to say no. The hard path is the voters to say yes.”
Was there a metaphorical moment where people were tearing their hair out, ready to quit? Where they’re in conflict with each other?
“Yes, there have been challenges integrating this new startup [Broadband] with this mothership culture of 140+ years [the City]. But you know, failure has never been an option for us. This is something that the voters approved, and we borrowed $140 million. We know what the task is, and we’re going to deliver on that promise.”
[With Broadband], what do you see now that the City of Fort Collins can attract that, before, simply wasn’t possible?
“This is about future-proofing and strengthening the community’s brand as a place of innovation. There’s a bigger opportunity now for the City to help higher ed, businesses, nonprofits, philanthropy, the medical industry, on and on, to leverage this platform.”
How long will it be before the City is covered by broadband? What are some of the different pieces to the infrastructure puzzle necessary to meet this timeline?
“We’ve been under construction for about six months and this is a three-year build-out process. The build is really, really important.
There’s also a lot of back office stuff — as our CFO says, the ‘longest pole in the tent is the billing system.’ You’d think building a thousand miles of fiber optics in an urbanized area would be tough. Building a back office, customer support systems and billing systems is even harder.
We’re touching every single person’s front or backyard in the entire community; we’re tearing and boring and displacing sod and rocks and then putting them back. We’ve got to get that just right. And another big challenge is when my wife, who is a stay-at-home-mom, sees that Connexion van drive up and sees the rep through the glass door and lets them in the house, that instantly they have credibility and that she has no worries letting them in our house for a couple hours.”
How has the overall City of Fort Collins organization benefited from going through this entire exercise?
“Now with broadband, we have five utilities: water, wastewater, storm water, electric, and broadband.”
“The organization is building on our strong culture of exceptional service while learning to be more nimble. And like every other business in the community, we can leverage this technology to improve our services.”
See even more information about Darin’s journey through this case study.