The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

7 Colorado communities just secured the right to build their own broadband

Boulder County election official Erin Meyers receives sealed ballots from motorists at a ballot drop-off in front of the Boulder County Clerk and Recorder's office, in Boulder, Colo., on Election Day. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Voters in seven cities and counties in Colorado voted Tuesday to free their local governments to offer Internet service.

The votes marked a defeat for big, traditional Internet service providers such as Comcast that have successfully maneuvered to inject limits on municipal broadband into state regulations over the last decade. Now cities are figuring out ways to push back, including wiggling out from under laws the industry helped put in place.

Nearly two dozen states have laws limiting the ability of local governments or their partners to offer their own broadband services, often passed with the encouragement of big commercial broadband providers who complain about unfair competition. But Colorado's version of the law is unique in that it offers an escape hatch. The 2005 state law allows municipalities to provide high-speed broadband Internet if "an election shall be called" and a majority of voters signs off on the idea.

And that's what these Colorado municipalities did Tuesday.

In Boulder, locals voted on whether the city should be "authorized to provide high-speed Internet services (advanced services), telecommunications services, and/or cable television services to residents, businesses, schools, libraries, nonprofit entities and other users of such services." As of late Tuesday night, the city of 100,000 people, which already owns miles of unused fiber, had approved the measure with 84 percent of the vote.

Similar overrides also passed by large margins in the towns of Yuma, Wray, Cherry Hills Village and Red Cliff and in  Rio Blanco and Yuma counties, according to KUNC, a public radio station in northern Colorado.

How were they able to secure such a big victory? There might be some factors at work that are bigger than even Colorado. Comcast, the state's largest cable provider, did not fight the referendum, perhaps because it is focused on getting its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable approved in Washington. (Comcast declined to comment for this report.)

The local popularity of municipal broadband puts traditional Internet service providers in a tough spot. There's a debate taking place on the national level over whether the federal government should step in to overturn laws like Colorado's, which prohibit municipal broadband. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler recently signaled that he might be willing to do so.

At the time, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) shot back that, "We don't need unelected bureaucrats in Washington telling our states what they can and can't do."

That becomes a bit harder argument to make, though, when it's the smallest of small government -- counties, and even cities -- making those decisions for themselves.

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