Cortez voters agreed to opt out of a restrictive Colorado telecommunications law during a municipal election Tuesday.
In unofficial results, 78% of voters chose to opt out of SB 152, with 1,013 voting yes and 277 voting no.
“I’m thrilled,” said former Mayor Karen Sheek, who advocated for passing the ballot measure. “It gives the city another avenue to pursue broadband and provide a needed service within our community.”
Voter participation was 24% with 1,294 ballots returned out of 5,330 mailed.
As of Monday morning, 1,222 ballots had been returned by mail or drop box, and counting was underway by the Montezuma County Elections Office. After polls closed at 7 p.m., the remaining ballots were tallied. Results were released at 7:25 p.m.
The question was the only item on the ballot.
SB 152, approved in 2005, restricts the ability of towns and counties from entering public-private partnerships to provide internet services and build related infrastructure.
The law includes an opt out provision if voters decide to exempt their community.
As of January 2019, 142 Colorado communities have opted out, including 40 counties and 102 municipalities.
Voters in Montezuma County and the towns of Dolores and Mancos agreed to opt out of SB 152 in 2016 by large margins.
La Plata County, Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio, Telluride, Montrose and Grand Junction also voted to opt out of the legislation.
Rick Smith, Cortez General Services director, said the city has collaborated with private industry to provide internet services since before SB 152 passed in 2005, and believed it was legally exempt from the restrictions.
But new legal advice prompted City officials to decide it would be best to also ask the voters for the exemption, he said.
Sheek described telecommunication services as “an essential utility for communities that is important for economic development, businesses and education.”
The pandemic further highlighted the importance of affordable and reliable internet service as workers, the public, and students were forced to rely on it more for online meetings, jobs and classes.
Sheek said allowing governments the option to partner with private industry for community telecommunication services is more important in rural areas where companies are hesitant to invest in infrastructure for a smaller number of customers.
“To move forward on finding solutions to improve internet service for our community, we need the exemption. It is the next natural step,” she said.
When passed in 2005, SB 152 proponents said the bill was needed to limit local governments from competing with the private sector on providing telecommunication services. The industry friendly legislation was seen as good for internet companies because it eliminated government competition.
According to the city flyer on the election, the result of the ballot measure does not prevent any private business, including existing broadband providers, from initiating or continuing to provide telecommunication services.
Smith said that in Cortez, broadband, high-speed internet service is generally stronger in the downtown corridor, in schools, libraries and government offices. The goal is to work on projects to improve internet service for households throughout town. Cortez recently partnered with Montezuma County to expand internet technology south of Cortez.
According to a Microsoft data set map published in technology news website The Verge, 16% of the population in Montezuma County use the internet at broadband speed.
In La Plata County, 33% of people use broadband speeds, and in Montrose County, 49% have access.
In Front Range metropolitan Douglas County, 94% of the population uses broadband speeds, and in Jefferson County, 63% use it.