Some Denver City Council members want to explore the city's options for providing internet access to residents who don't have connections.
But first, they need to get permission from voters to take stock of those opportunities, says City Councilman Paul Kashmann.
On Wednesday, Kashmann began a push to put a question on the 2020 ballot that would ask voter approval for Denver to opt-out of a 2005 state law, known as Senate Bill 152, that bars local governments from building broadband infrastructure or entering the market.
"The great thing about getting out of (Senate Bill) 152 — it simply allows you to really look at all your options," Kashmann said in an interview. "I think we need to dig deeper, really get an accurate handle on what are the gaps that need to be filled, and then look at what are the options of filling those gaps."
The Denver Public Library estimates, based on census data, that 20% of the city's residents don't have an internet connection, Kashmann told his colleagues at a Wednesday meeting of the council's policy committee. According to the library, that data could be skewed, and the real figure could be even higher, Kashmann noted.
The library system has 120 wireless internet "hot spots" that residents who don't have service can rent for three weeks at a time, the councilman said. But there's a wait list of about 200 people, so those who need a connection — including many people from Denver's west side and northeast neighborhoods — could have to wait for two months or so to get a hot spot, he said.
The disparity in internet access has a greater negative impact on poorer neighborhoods and areas with more racial minorities, as many other inequities do, Kashmann said.
"We’ve never charged for library service," he said. "The internet is the portal to information now, and it needs to be accessed equally at all economic and cultural levels."
Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said that she's offered internet service at her home to some of her son's middle school friends because the children couldn't access the web but needed one to for assignments.
"They don’t have textbooks anymore, everything is on the internet," she said. "We’re setting up our next future generation to fail if we don’t have equity."
Council members Candi CdeBaca and Chris Hinds also expressed support for Kashman's proposal for an opt-out ballot measure, which was first reported by Denverite.
More than 100 cities and towns and 40 counties in Colorado have voted to opt out of the law, according to Kashmann.
Some localities have invested in studies to determine how they can provide better services to residents or forge partnerships with providers, such as CenturyLink and Comcast.
Centennial has developed a 432-fiber strand "backbone" that a private providers help operate, according to its municipal website.
Others cities have gotten into the broadband business.
Longmont bills itself as Colorado's first "Gig City," offering service to homes and businesses that allows unlimited gigagbit uploads and downloads via a fiber-optic network, the city's website says.
Fort Collins recently launched its "community-owned and community driven" broadband service, Connexion, which is expected to be available to everyone within the city's limits in the next three years, the city manager wrote in an editorial for The Coloradoan.
Kashmann floated a few alternatives. Perhaps the city could build new fiber infrastructure, make more hot spot devices available, or subsidize service plans that residents purchase from providers, he said.
It's hard to imagine a situation where Comcast, CenturyLink and other providers aren't in the picture, he said.
"This isn’t necessarily arguing against the providers we already have," Hinds said during the committee meeting. "I think that a healthy competitive market has many options, and we want to make sure that our Denver residents, the people we represent, have access to options."