The City Council decided in the middle of last year to scuttle what had been tentative plans to place a measure on the 2017 ballot related to a build-out of a broadband network in Boulder.

City staff, along with some in the public, has since been operating under the assumption that such a measure would be placed on 2018's ballot.

But a council discussion Tuesday evening suggested that a broadband measure may not reach Boulder voters this year, or even, necessarily, the year after that.

Council members had questions about the debt that Boulder would have to issue for the project; about the relationship between potential city utilities delivering electricity and internet; about potential private-sector partners; and about unknowns regarding just how effective a business a local broadband utility may or may not be.

No votes were taken Tuesday, but the council's direction to city staff was clear: Return with as much new information as possible ahead of the next council discussion on this topic — scheduled for March as of now — but don't assume 2018 is the year Boulderites vote on it.


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Yet the council's commentary on how broadband might be delivered across the city also seemed clearly to lean in favor of a public option, in which Boulder either builds out a fiber network without a private-sector partner, or does that while also becoming a city-run internet service provider — better known as an ISP.

In large part, that leaning is informed by the fact that Boulder has already investigated potential public-private partnerships and determined that no ideal partner exists at the moment. That realization is what prompted the decision in 2017 not to pursue a ballot measure.

Boulder is going to "re-engage" in coming months with private companies the city might partner with on this broadband project, Assistant City Manager Chris Meschuk said.

"If we get crickets" from that renewed call, Councilman Bob Yates followed, the city may be able to rule out the public-private partnership option by the spring.

That would leave two options: Do nothing, or pursue a city build-out, possibly including the establishment of a city utility that operates the built-out network.

Councilman Sam Weaver said he hopes the city can produce and then show to the public an analysis of what the city's business model would look like for a broadband utility.

"It needs to be validated pretty thoroughly if we're going to move forward with this," he said.

There currently exists an online tool that allows members of the public to review and manipulate various business-model assumptions related to Boulder's theoretical municipal electric utility. Weaver said a similar tool for broadband would be useful.

He and Yates both also asked the staff to provide some information about what benefits there might or might not be to the city if it were to wait on broadband until Boulder was further along with its separate push for an electric utility.

While distinct, the two pursuits are related in the sense that a city that owns its electric utility also owns rights-of-way, poles and other infrastructure that can be used for broadband utilities. It becomes much easier and cheaper then to add on local internet service.

Just how much easier and cheaper it would be in Boulder's case is not known yet.

City staff has been clear that waiting on the electricity project to advance would not be prudent, because it could be five years or more before Boulder is actually operating a city-run electric utility. Meanwhile, a build-out of the fiber network — estimated to cost $100 million to $140 million — could be done in two to four years, according to Meschuk.

In that time, the need for high-speed, relatively low-cost internet may be even higher than it is today, argued Julia Richman, Boulder's chief innovation officer and interim IT director.

She told the council that by 2021, monthly internet usage per capita will be nearly triple what it was in 2016 — 35 gigabytes, up from 13. She also shared a projection that shows 13 internet-connected devices per person by 2021, up from eight in 2016.

"It's an insanely fast growth in the use of the internet," Richman said. "There's going to be an incredible demand for internet services in a way that is rapidly accelerating, and being prepared for that is really important."

Richman and others spoke Tuesday about how internet service has, in the view of many, effectively become a basic human right.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Brockett commented on the urgency he perceives.

"We do not have a caliber of broadband that compares with the caliber of the tech community and artistic community (in Boulder)," he said. "There are all these people, young people, professionals, who would benefit from faster broadband, and they're champing at the bit.

"I think there is a timeliness to this in terms of providing services to our residents that they're very, very interested in."

His council did not seem to disagree with that sentiment, but a majority did express interest in gathering more information, particularly on potential electric-broadband synergies, before moving ahead and asking voters to approved funding for what promises to be a pricey endeavor. The city's already committed $234,000 to a broadband consultant, and the build could run another $100 million or more.

"I don't think we need to rush to get something on the 2018 ballot," Councilwoman Mary Young said. "I think we need to make sure we've dotted our i's and crossed our t's and have all the right information."

Added Councilwoman Lisa Morzel: "It doesn't seem to me like this project is ready for prime time."

Alex Burness: 303-473-1389, burnessa@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/alex_burness