BVSD among 40 Colorado jurisdictions putting broadband on the ballot

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Gavin Dahl | Boulder Weekly

If ballot question 3A passes, Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) would attempt to earn revenue and expand Internet access. Thanks to a state law passed in 2005 (SB-152), which restricts local governments from competing with broadband providers, BVSD must get permission from voters before leveraging its own fiber optic network’s excess capacity. Voters face a question with a fairly obvious answer: Should schools keep innovating?

Last year, BVSD launched a pilot project called 1:Web (One to Web), issuing Chromebooks, laptops running Google’s Chrome operating system, to incoming freshmen at Centaurus High School. Now all ninth and tenth graders at Centaurus have one, and Broomfield High freshmen are getting one too.

“We are working hard to try to get the equivalent of a printing press into everyone’s backpack,” says Andrew Moore, chief information officer at BVSD. “If you’ve got a digital device — a Chromebook, a laptop, an iPad — in your backpack, it is the gateway.”

As online learning becomes a bigger part of the curriculum, content is more likely to come from apps and websites than traditional textbooks. A student who goes home to no Internet or no device is at a disadvantage.

Angela Siefer, director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, says Boulder Valley residents should be very proud of BVSD’s innovations.

“They are on the edge,” she said during a KGNU radio panel discussion about the digital divide. “I had not heard the term One to Web before, and I think it’s quite brilliant. These districts that have gone toward one-to-one initiatives found some kids weren’t doing their homework because they didn’t have the assumed access at home. Textbooks are very rarely on the device. They are available via a link to the cloud, so to speak. If you don’t have access at home, you can’t read your homework.”

“That creates an achievement gap,” Moore says. “We are doing what we can to remove that gap but you have to have Internet capabilities as well. That is where partnerships come in which one day could allow us to go to more of the housing developments to ensure that Internet is provided to reduce the digital divide, reduce the homework gap, and create an equal playing field for opportunity for our students.”

A member of the superintendent’s cabinet, Moore supports professional development for teachers using educational technology in classrooms and leads a dozen technicians who manage networks, phone systems and traditional IT services across the district’s 55 schools. He says BVSD has over 100 miles of fiber capacity in the ground, including unused “dark” fiber. But the district can’t offer new broadband services unless voters override SB-152.

“We’re restricted from leasing fiber to private entities, and we’re restricted from providing Internet services,” Moore says. “So we really followed the City of Boulder’s lead.”

After an analysis of their own infrastructure, Boulder presented voters with ballot item 2C last year, which passed with over 84 percent approval.

Moore says if Boulder, Louisville, Lafayette, Broomfield, Nederland or Erie wanted to enter into partnerships to provide Internet services, BVSD could not get involved until district voters opt for the exemption. At its August meeting, the BVSD Board of Education voted unanimously to become the first school district seeking its own SB-152 override.

No known opposition has emerged. 

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce supported the city’s ballot item last year and endorses BVSD this time around.

“We recognize that an innovation economy like ours demands this kind of broadband infrastructure,” CEO John Tayer says. “We also appreciate that our full community deserves access to high speed Internet for their own personal use to participate in our society and to stay informed on important issues.”

A dozen cities and counties have now passed exemptions to the decade-old law. The mere threat of a town considering an override can create a more competitive environment. After Longmont broke ground on NextLight, touting the best prices in the state on gigabit fiber-to-the-home, CenturyLink started promoting their nascent gigabit offerings with ads at Rockies games, mailers and door-knocking campaigns in areas where gigabit service isn’t even available. Voters were in favor of SB-152 overrides in urban and rural communities alike.

Last year, Yuma County Economic Development Corporation executive director Darlene Carpio told BW, “We just don’t have what we need here, the speeds, affordability, reliability.”

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that about half of rural America can’t access the speeds urban areas take for granted.

Jeff Gavlinksi, co-chair of the annual broadband development conference Mountain Connect, says Archuleta County, La Plata County, San Juan County, Bayfield, Ignacio, Pagosa Springs and Silverton are all inspired by Durango, where roughly 14 of the city’s 19 miles of conduit are leased to local providers.

Most communities don’t want to become their own Internet service provider, he says. BVSD superintendent Dr. Bruce Messinger isn’t interested in the district becoming an ISP, but he would like to be able to light up areas of the community where families can’t afford service or where high speeds are not available.

“They’re looking for long-term sustainable partnerships,” Gavlinski told BW at the Digital Government Summit in Denver. “Incumbents should look at it as an opportunity. If communities can figure out a way to work in an open access model, they are presumably spending money that incumbents have decided they can’t make a business case to spend.”

Moore clarifies that BVSD has no plans to follow up this year’s ballot question with a tax increase or bond proposal.

“I don’t see a scenario where we would go back to ask voters for money,” Moore says. “It’s really the opposite of that. We are interested in partnering with any private entity that may want to utilize our fiber. If we get permission, I would be going out to private entities to see if I couldn’t generate revenue that would go into our general fund. It would be at the Board of Education’s discretion on how best to spend that money. It’s a matter of prioritizing with all the other needs at a time when K-12 funding across the state is under stress.”

Many parents wonder why BVSD has to commit resources to a ballot question in the first place. Public policy advocates decry state laws like SB-152, saying they serve to reduce infrastructure investments while hurting competition.

“It’s an obnoxious law that was passed by the industry to protect their monopoly,” Colorado Municipal League counsel Geoff Wilson told the Durango Herald. “The law is designed to protect the provider of inferior service from the local government doing anything about it.”

Yet legislators like Colorado Sen. Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge), an original sponsor of the bill back in 2005, deny protectionism was the intent. She told KUNC, “It’s doing exactly what my intention was,” asking taxpayers to approve local broadband activity. The Boulder Chamber doesn’t think the step should be necessary.

“We wish we hadn’t had that barrier to begin with,” says Tayer.

So is it time for the state legislature to revisit the restrictions out lined in SB-152?

“The message is clear,” Gavlinski says. “Look at how many communities are taking this to a vote. SB-152 needs to be revisited. What’s the tipping point? Does it have to be 50 communities, 100 communities?” 

Gavlinski has seen the attendance at his conference triple and says it is no surprise that 40 Colorado jurisdictions are offering similar ballot items seeking to reestablish control of their broadband future on Nov. 3.

“I think it would make all of our lives easier if the state would revisit it because it does take time and energy to put something to a vote,” Moore says of BVSD’s 3A efforts. “Of course I would love to have an even playing field and to not have to do what we’re doing. The good news is that there is a mechanism to work through this and do exactly what a number of cities have done before us.”