Colorado has nearly 194,000 households and businesses that remain unconnected to internet services, and the Polis administration has made it a goal to get 99% of the state connected to reliable broadband by 2027.
But filling the shortfall won’t be easy. Broadband coverage maps currently don’t reflect the reality on the ground, something both the state and federal agencies are trying to address. More infrastructure needs to be added in rural parts of the state to better connect communities, both in the last mile to reach homes and businesses and the “middle” mile to connect those communities to larger fiber networks.
Poor internet connectivity prevents people from accessing vital services like education, health care and government support and it can hamper the ability of businesses to market themselves and reach customers, said Brandy Reitter, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office while addressing the “Internet for All: Colorado Broadband Summit” held at the Westminster Westin Hotel on Wednesday.
And even if enough broadband infrastructure is built, the cost can be so high that many households simply aren’t in a financial position to foot the monthly bill, a problem in urban as well as rural areas.
“How do you get people connected to the internet who have access to the internet? It is a tough nut to crack,” she said.
The Biden administration has created the Internet for All initiative to take a “whole nation” approach to fill in the gaps. The signature program is the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) to help connect unserved and underserved communities. Unserved locations are defined as those with no access to download speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) and underserved as those lacking access to 100 Mbps or faster.
Another $2.75 billion is available under the Digital Equity Act, which established three grant programs, with another $2 billion available to help improve access in tribal areas.
Colorado expects to receive $1 billion over the next five years in federal funds to address coverage gaps, but one of the first challenges it faces is knowing exactly where coverage is lacking and who isn’t accessing broadband that is available.
For years, the Federal Communications Commission relied on broadband providers to list where they were providing service down to the Census block. But in rural areas, those blocks can cover huge swaths of land. So long as a provider reached one town or even one building in a block, then the whole block was considered as having internet service.
“Congress has said collect location data, not census block data,” Eduard Bartholme, deputy Bureau chief of consumer and governmental affairs at the FCC told those attending the summit.
The FCC Is revamping its maps and states can challenge the information that service providers have offered, Bartholme said. Data is also being gathered on the actual, not just advertised, speeds achieved in a given location. Because it was early in establishing a Broadband Office, Colorado is further along than many states in being able to mount a challenge, as well as apply for federal funds.
The CBO has submitted 1,500 availability challenges and all were upheld by FCC, which typically happens because providers don’t dispute them. Another 13,000 more detailed location challenges have been submitted, of which 6,700 have been accepted so far. Getting the federal broadband maps as accurate as possible is key to winning federal dollars and making sure they are applied where they are most needed, Reitter said.
“Building accountability into our data sets will help us make decisions on where this funding goes,” she said.
Once the maps are updated by the end of June, Colorado will have 180 days to submit its plans to address how and where it wants to spend federal funds, a planning process that is already well underway.
“We want to make sure if we are using taxpayer dollars, they are going to really good investments,” said Robyn Madison, regional director in the Northern Plains region for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is overseeing the disbursement of the BEAD and other grants.
The administration has placed an emphasis on lifting up overlooked communities — minorities, women-owned businesses, veterans, low-income households and rural. Lifting up includes both providing access where it is lacking, but also training and offering career opportunities in the telecommunications field.
The BEAD program is different than prior broadband initiatives from the federal government in that it puts the onus on states to develop a plan rather than using a top-down approach.
But there are roadblocks Colorado needs to tackle to make sure it can get the most efficient use out of the federal broadband dollars it receives, a chief one raised during the summit being the ability of rural communities and their providers to access the right of way that the Colorado Department of Transportation controls so they can lay down fiber.
In more remote areas, CDOT controls the only viable path for laying fiber, but partnering with the state agency has been a lengthy and cumbersome process.
“I’ve been working on this issue for five years for my county. It is time for us to get a CDOT permit. It is taking way longer than it should,” complained Lola Spradley, president of Huerfano County Economic Development.
Jonas Durham, fiber development manager at CDOT, replied that streamlining and speeding up the approval process has been a top priority of his since he stepped into the job last July.
“It has taken way too long previously. We are making process improvements and removing unnecessary steps to get into an agreement with CDOT. We are very focused on that. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of work has been done. I am definitely committed to that process,” Durham said.
One key change is switching from an intergovernmental agreement to gain access to the right of way to a special use permit when it comes to accessing the right of way. That could cut approval times down from 12 to 24 months to 3 or 4 months, Durham said, and the new application process should be ironed out by June or July.
Another complaint regarded the ongoing fees that CDOT charges providers for access, which one consultant described as being cost prohibitive to providing service in rural areas. Durham said CDOT is aware of the concern and is gathering feedback so it can create a fee structure that will allow more rural broadband access. He also said the department is still building its network out and invited service providers to co-locate their fiber with it.
Durham said his hope was to come back to a summit a year from now and that there would be less criticism and more appreciation for the work CODT has done in boosting broadband access across the state.
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