Colorado Springs is consistently voted “one of the best places to live in America” and has its long-term sights set on furthering its reputation as a livable, innovative city that’s desirable for businesses and residents alike.
One of the primary ways that local leadership hopes to help Colorado Springs accomplish this goal is by building an ultra-fast fiber network that would connect every home and business to the internet. However, data from federally-funded broadband expansions in Colorado suggest that private interests in the market may make public broadband infrastructure unnecessary and ultimately a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Construction on Colorado Springs’ network began in early 2022 and is slated to end in 2028 with an estimated cost of $500 million. Yet, the city does not plan to shoulder the costs entirely. Instead of running the fiber system as a public utility, Colorado Springs’ representatives agreed to lease out the infrastructure to Ting Internet, a broadband company currently operating in 12 towns across the country. Ting is promising “super fast” gigabit and multi-gigabit for 25 years once the system is built.
Colorado Springs says it plans to use this new infrastructure to provide service for the city’s internal operations. Still, it will leave the service provisions up to providers who lease its fiber, like Ting. Although the city has not released information on service costs for consumers, Ting offers plans starting at $90 a month (not including equipment and startup costs).
Officials say that Colorado Springs will purposely overbuild its fiber network, intending to leave much of the initial systems unused, a practice called dark fiber. The city will even build additional fiber through areas previously receiving federal funding for other broadband expansions, lighting up this fiber if companies subscribe to Ting and Springs Utilities. Springs Utilities then takes a cut, using the funds to offset building debts and resident costs.
But Colorado Springs’ new fiber network is unlikely to be the only broadband game in town. Underline, a Texas startup, has already started building 225 miles of open-access fiber in the city. Another provider, MetroNet, plans to offer internet service with download and upload speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second to consumers by the end of the year. The company will also undercut Ting’s posted prices by $20, offering a comparable package for $70 compared to Ting’s $90.
Traditional fiber providers aren’t the only ones developing services that may challenge Colorado Springs’ public network. Recent reports of broadband expansion in Colorado suggest that satellite broadband providers aggressively expand their services in the state.
Satellite broadband, which is offered by providers like Starlink, HughesNet, and Viasat, involves mounting a satellite to the covered area that relays signals to an orbiting satellite and beams internet back to the Earth. This technique is beneficial in areas where laying physical fiber lines may not be economical. Satellite broadband can enable sparsely-populated regions, like much of Colorado, to obtain internet access similar in speed and price to traditional fiber models.
HughesNet, the U.S.’s leading satellite broadband company, is a Colorado-based EchoStar subsidiary. With over one million U.S. subscribers, HughesNet offers plans undercut the anticipated prices from providers in Colorado Springs, sitting 40% below the national average for broadband service. The affordability of HughesNet and its clear interest in Colorado further imply that Colorado Springs’ municipally-owned broadband could face tough competition that is not limited to other fiber providers.
Viasat, another satellite broadband company, is also finding success throughout Colorado. Viasat offers several benefits for subscribers that may attract customers away from Colorado Springs’ service. Households can choose to bundle their internet with television service from DirecTV or expand their cell phone capabilities with Viasat’s Voice Over Internet Protocol, which allows telephone calls over WiFi rather than cellular. The organization also appears to be targeting Colorado for long-term business operations. The company has established service in 142 cities across the state. It has also started formally running some of its business out of Colorado, establishing an office in Douglas County and opening “many” consumer stores near Denver. Investing not only in expansive consumer offerings but also in physical business centers and stores implies that Viasat sees a substantial future in Colorado.
Colorado Springs is wise to recognize the digital divide between those with broadband and those without. Importantly, expansions from satellite internet providers like HughesNet and Viasat, actively pursuing developments in the state, should inform Colorado Springs’ broadband strategy. The success of these companies and the rapid expansion of others, like Starlink, signify that satellite internet is becoming a viable solution to broadband disparities.
Ultimately, private companies and the market are likely to organically solve the broadband divide, and public systems like Colorado Springs’ fiber network are going to be unnecessary and expensive for taxpayers.