Colorado eliminates key hurdle for municipal broadband deployment

Colorado this week took a critical step in removing municipal broadband restrictions. Governor Jared Polis signed legislation allowing communities to provide broadband service, either alone or with a partner ISP, without holding a local election.

The legislation, Senate Bill 23-183, revises SB-152, a bill passed in 2005 that prohibited local governments from directly or indirectly deploying broadband, unless they obtained voter approval to opt-out of the law. Colorado’s broadband director Brandy Reitter told Fierce in January around one-third of Colorado’s cities and towns have opted out of SB-152. However, elections can be expensive for communities. And “if a community has not opted out, they cannot participate in our program,” Reitter said at the time.

The new bill allows local governments to take advantage of federal funding opportunities, such as the $10 billion Capital Projects Fund and the $42.5 billion Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

SB23-183 takes effect immediately, so communities that haven’t opted out of the old law can now apply for state and federal funds. The bill’s fact sheet notes local governments must adhere to the same state and federal regulations as private ISPs and that they “cannot make or grant any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to itself or any private broadband internet service provider or middle-mile infrastructure.”

“SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the Governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027,” Reitter said in a statement. “Each local government is in a unique position or different phase of connecting residents to high-speed internet, and this bill allows them to establish broadband plans that meet the needs of their communities.”

Despite Colorado’s progress, municipal broadband restrictions remain prevalent across the country. According to BroadbandNow, 16 states still have laws hindering municipal broadband networks in some way. Not all of those states prohibit municipal entities from deploying broadband, but they impose restrictions to make it difficult to offer service to residents.

In 2022, Maine and New York were two states that passed legislation supporting municipal broadband deployment. Nebraska, which currently prohibits any public entities from providing broadband, has proposed legislation that would lift those restrictions. An original version of the bill overturning its restrictions was “indefinitely postponed” last April, but reintroduced as LB 26 in January of this year. No action has been taken on it since a hearing was held at the end of January.

To bolster municipal broadband, a coalition of public officials last year established the American Association of Public Broadband (AAPB), which raised over $200,000 within its first month of formation. One of AAPB’s concerns was that BEAD guidelines could make it harder for municipalities to apply for funding.

The NTIA has asked states to grant waivers to existing laws that would limit BEAD participation. An agency representative told Fierce last month the BEAD rules don’t preempt existing state laws and restrictions aren’t expected to delay a state or territory’s BEAD allocation.