Ken Lucas, a Centennial City Council member and mayor pro tem, has fiber sticking out of the ground in his front yard. It’s a visual reminder of how far the south Denver metro city of 110,000 has come in the five years since voters opted out of Senate Bill, which limits cities from offering their own broadband-internet services.
More than 100 local communities across the state have opted out of the state law, but very few have yet completed as much work as Centennial has.
Voters in those cities decided that they’d get better internet service with their local governments involved than relying on the private marketplace.
The wave in favor of community broadband has been especially pronounced in areas outside the state’s big cities where residents sometimes feel they’re not getting the best internet service from big commercial providers. In rural areas, it often doesn’t pencil out for the private sector to build or expand high-speed networks.
But such measures have passed in larger cities, too, including Colorado Springs in 2017.
Centennial recently unveiled its fiber backbone, which Lucas said will have a daily impact on businesses and residents of the city.
SB 152 became law in 2005 after former Gov. Bill Owens signed the act. The measure, backed by various telecom companies, dictated that municipalities couldn’t run their own broadband or television services.
But they could opt out through a citizen vote, which has become increasingly common across the state.
This year Aurora, Cañon City, Florence, Fountain and Erie voters all decided to opt out of SB 152 — many doing so with the belief that it will help their community’s economy.
Lucas, who acts as Centennial's Fiber Commission chair, has a background in startups and venture capital, so when he was sitting in a Colorado Municipal League conference about opting out of the state law several years ago, he said he knew it could be a good thing for his city.
“This is something I had funded when I was in the investment banking business. I knew about fiber and what it could do,” he told Colorado Politics.
Centennial’s journey began in 2013 when city voters approved opting out of SB152, which let the municipality build its fiber system and make non-exclusive partnerships.
“It did take a lot of planning. We weren't in any hurry, we wanted to do it right,” Lucas said. “We started out and said it won’t cost us anything to put it on the ballot, and a lot of very important discussions happened at the council level. We were worried about competing with the private sector, so we wrote the question saying that we’d be an open access model. A lot of people haven’t done open access, which means we’ll provide the fiber network and let the private sector to see if they want to access it.”
And it has.
With the construction of the fiber backbone complete, Centennial announced it executed four lease agreements — the big one being a 20-year agreement with a service called Ting, a unit of U.S.-Canadian company Tucows Inc.
Unlike other municipalities that have waded into offering their own broadband service, like Longmont has, Centennial decided it would be best to build the system, then lease the fiber out to private companies.
Lucas said city lawmakers and staff had conversations with big telecom companies — like Comcast, the biggest employer in Centennial — to offer up their fiber, but Lucas said they declined.
“It’s an interesting mix of competition,” he added. “That was one of our main goals was to add competition.”
The major shift in city infrastructure is slated to be a good addition for the local economy too. The south Denver metro region already employees more than 17,000 people in the telecom and broadcasting industries, according to a Denver South Economic Development Partnership report. That could expand with more leases and partnerships in Centennial.
But the impact could be beyond that sector of jobs, Lucas said highlighting the more than 4,000 people who work from home businesses in Centennial. With more competition and better service, Lucas believes that will be an attractive feature to a lot of people who are looking to live around the Denver metroplex.
Jake Rishavy, who works with the Denver South Economic Development Partnership and helps steer the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, agreed. He said metro areas around the country are becoming competitive with each other and having a fiber structure like Centennial does can help an area stand out.
“If you have 21st century infrastructure, all things are possible,” he said. “In the economic development world we are experiencing a macro-level shift. People used to move for work, and now they’re moving to communities that have high qualities of life and companies are chasing them. ... Communities like centennial that are making investments in tech infrastructure so that they can better deliver community services, those are creating a competitive advantage.”
Centennial has other high hopes for its fiber backbone as it relates to quality of life, including education — Cherry Creek School District signed an intergovernmental agreement for a fiber lease — and safety.
The city said the new infrastructure “will become an integral part in the rollout of the city’s new Intelligent Traffic Signaling system.”
Centennial set out on building its 50 miles of fiber backbone in 2016. It was finished on time and on budget for $5.7 million, but there’s also more room to grow and more developments coming for the city.
“We jumped in front of the 5G process with the major carriers in the mobile space, and we’re seeing a lot of applications now,” Lucas said. “5G has to be put on city attachments like street lights. We anticipate over the next couple of years, we’ll be able to take advantage of that.”