A Fine Explainer of Technology and Politics: How a Colorado Community Beat Big Cable

(Note: I asked my Media Literacy students for a blog post analyzing a major story in a topic area they care about. Here’s an example.)

The Washington Post’s technology and policy blog, called “The Switch,” took a deep look at how Longmont, a Denver suburb, beat back the cable-TV industry in a multi-year battle to have the right to install its own fiber-optic communications network. But the article isn’t just about one small Colorado city. It’s about the cable industry’s ongoing campaign to deny people competition.

Here’s a sample from the story, entitled “Big Cable may have felled Seattle’s mayor, but it couldn’t stop this Colo. project“:

There are 27,000 households in Longmont. Even if the city were to connect all of the eligible homes to its existing fiber network overnight, it would still reach only 1,100 residences. Cable companies therefore spent over half a million dollars trying to prevent four percent of city households from gaining access to municipal fiber on any reasonable timescale. That’s around $600 a home, or six months’ worth of Xfinity Triple Play.

Did Longmont set a precedent?

Perhaps that’s why the cable industry has mostly given up fighting Longmont — it’s not worth it anymore. On Tuesday night, voters overwhelmingly approved of the city’s third fiber ballot measure since SB 152, Question 2B. Question 2B asks whether the local government should be allowed to issue $45.3 million in bonds to pay for a city-wide deployment of fiber, one that would finally connect all 27,000 homes, and every private business, to public fiber within the next three years. Proponents estimated that without the funding, it would take a half-century to complete the roll-out. Voters gave it the green light, by a 68-32 percent split. No group came forward to contest the measure. The cable companies had picked up their ball and gone home.

The piece smartly uses a local story to go deep into a national issue. First, it details the long struggle Longmont  had to overcome the cable industry’s money and political clout in the state legislature. Then it shows how the city is just one of many local communities around the country facing this kind of thing. Finally, it demonstrates how a community, with enough tenacity, can outlast even an industry as wealthy — and tenacious in its own right — as the cable companies.

But it is correctly cautious about what message this case sends to other communities that are thinking of doing the same thing. For one thing, it notes that local fiber deployments don’t always work out well for taxpayers. For another, the cable companies definitely don’t see one defeat as a national harbinger.

Indeed, as the Post observes, Comcast led a cable-industry group that poured money into a political race in Seattle this fall — and helped defeat the incumbent mayor, Mike McGinn, a supporter of municipal fiber. (As the story notes, Comcast denies any connection.)

The Post’s story, better than most I’ve seen on this topic, brings home an issue we’re likely to see more often. The end of the piece nicely sums it up:

But what Longmont’s experience does show is how large the gulf is between an incumbent industry that can spend money on a massive scale to promote its interests and advocates of municipal fiber that often lack deep-pocketed allies. Those odds made the triumph of Longmont’s municipal fiber backers all the more remarkable.

I hope the Post will revisit Longmont in a couple of years, to tell us whether this experiment is working. What happens elsewhere may ride on that.

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