Polis and Stiegelmeier: Overcoming rural Colorado’s broadband hurdles (column)
We’ve all heard politicians talk about “modernizing Colorado’s infrastructure” — our roads, bridges, highways and public transit systems. But in our view, any infrastructure plan that doesn’t make universal internet access a top priority is woefully incomplete.
The lack of high-speed internet in Colorado’s rural communities is a crisis that needs to be resolved. Not just talked about, not just understood. Actually fixed.
The internet is not just a tool to stream our favorite TV shows. Lack of access means rural schools aren’t able to give students equal opportunities to prepare for college and the workforce. Patients that have trouble traveling to far-away hospitals aren’t able to utilize telemedicine. Entrepreneurs in rural Colorado are being told to live elsewhere if they want to pursue their dreams with an online business, or location-independent employment. And in many rural areas, the lack of internet access is compounded by the lack of basic cell service — leaving drivers with no way to contact emergency services for a vehicle accident or wildfire.
Three years ago, Colorado passed a bill attempting to tackle this problem by creating the Broadband Deployment Fund. In theory, the fund would provide funds for the resources needed to provide access to broadband to their residents. In practice, almost no money has been awarded to rural Colorado to expand broadband access. And for the most part, the same people who lacked internet access two years ago still don’t have it today.
So, what do we do?
Some of the solutions are complicated. One of the reasons the Broadband Deployment Fund hasn’t successfully deployed much broadband is due to a poorly written standard called “effective competition.” In theory, this standard should ensure that resources are deposited into the Broadband Fund after the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) certifies that a community no longer needs support for telephone service. In practice, the vague nature of this standard has been an obstacle preventing money from being moved to fund broadband projects. We need to revise the standard to give the PUC better ability to quickly deploy funds that assist in building broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
Other solutions are common sense. Right now, under an archaic Colorado law passed in 2005 known as Senate Bill 152, local governments are prohibited from budgeting for, or building, broadband infrastructure on their own unless they go to the ballot to opt out of the ban. This requirement adds costs, and months to the timeline, for communities to build broadband, and it puts too much power in the hands of telecommunications companies.
In fact, not a single ballot measure to opt out has been rejected by voters. Some rural communities have opted out of the ban on community broadband to great success, creating a service for residents that delivers some of the highest internet speeds in the state.
We support maintaining the protections for consumers and the private sector that current law provides for, but modernizing Senate Bill 152, which many Coloradans consider a special-interest giveaway, is an obvious first step we can take to make it easier for communities to plan for and finance their own broadband projects.
We also support continuing the good work being done by Governor Hickenlooper’s administration to support the creation of strategic regional broadband plans. More public-private partnerships will help more communities build the infrastructure needed to deliver broadband in tough geographic areas, and we should encourage better coordination between state agencies.
It’s beyond time for Colorado to take the steps needed to bridge the urban-rural “digital divide.” Achieving universal internet access is one of the most important things we can do to help rural communities overcome economic disadvantages they may face when compared with the Front Range. In fact, it will help the entire state, because the more Coloradans we have telecommuting or working close to home, the less congested our roads and highways will be.
It’s going to take courage from elected officials across the state to champion the needs of rural Coloradans by demanding that broadband is built-out across the state. When our entire state is given a chance to succeed, we all benefit.
Jared Polis, the state’s U.S. Congressman representing Summit County, is running for governor of Colorado. Karn Stiegelmeier is a Summit County commissioner.
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