Citing high public support and demand for better, cheaper internet, Boulder's City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to fund through the issuance of debt the $15 million construction of what will become the backbone of a citywide broadband network.
In a survey, the results of which were presented publicly for the first time during Tuesday night's meeting, 90 percent of respondents supported city-owned and -operated internet, and as many said they would be very or somewhat likely to purchase service from the city.
Another surprising result was the share of households — somewhere between 4 percent and 7 percent — with no internet service, due to lack of access or affordability. A staff-provided map showed that most of the under-served areas were in low-income neighborhoods.
"It's embarrassing for me that in somewhere like Boulder, (that much) of the community doesn't have access to internet," Councilman Bob Yates said. "The internet has become a fundamental need. Imagine if 4 to 7 percent of our community didn't have water or electricity."
Part of Boulder's plan for creating a broadband network emphasizes providing service to under-served and low-income residents, a priority that 91 percent of survey respondents also supported.
During a public hearing before the council, Rossana Longo spoke of the widespread lack of access among the Latino community.
"I am one of those lucky Latinas who have access to internet," Longo said. "For the last two years, I have been trying to create radio services for Spanish-speaking people. Again and again when I go to register them, they don't have internet at home."
Though fewer than 10 people spoke during the public hearing, all supported the city moving forward in the quickest and most efficient manner. City staff had presented four funding options to the council: two would not require voter approval, while two would.
Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Pattelli said paying for the estimated $15 million buildout was not a viable option given the looming budget shortfall. There is some capacity for debt, she said, through the issuance of certificates of participation.
The council ultimately voted to direct city staff to explore the issuance of certificates of participation to fund the buildout.
A 20-year debt structure would require annual payments of $1.1 million from the city, according to staff estimates. That could be supplemented with money from the city's general fund and, perhaps, revenue generated by early customers of the fiber network.
The idea of partnerships with existing commercial internet service providers was floated, as well as teaming with Boulder Housing Partners to provide service to residents at lower rates than are currently paid.
Such arrangements could provide revenue for the eventual total buildout, Yates said. The estimated cost of the entire network is around $140 million.
Though more than 80 percent of survey-takers said they would support a sales tax to fund the backbone build, the council worried that would not translate to success at the ballot.
"I'm a little reluctant to go to voters with this because this phase won't deliver internet," Yates said.
Other members echoed that, and said they felt comfortable moving forward given the overwhelming support for the use of public funds for the infrastructure construction: also 80 percent.
"How many things poll at over 90 percent?" asked Aaron Brockett, "Not much."
This article has been edited to clarify that the city would pay $1.1 million annually on the 20-year debt structure.