Colorado rural broadband gets help on two fronts: General Assembly and Congress

Author: Marianne Goodland - March 26, 2018 - Updated: April 6, 2018

rural broadbandSen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. (David Zalubowski, AP file)

This past week was a good one to get ready for changes in the way Colorado will manage the future of rural broadband.

On Tuesday, the Senate agreed to amendments placed on Senate Bill 2, which could put as much as $150 million into financing high-speed Internet to rural communities. The bill has now gone to Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign.

A bill viewed as a companion to Senate Bill 2 followed shortly after. The Senate approved House Bill 1099 on a 25-10 vote on Friday, and since it was not amended in its trip through the Senate, it also heads to the governor to sign.

House Bill 1099 deals with what’s known as the right of first refusal. The situation came to the attention of lawmakers in southwestern Colorado last year. Elevate, a new telecom provider operated by the local non-profit Delta-Montrose Electric Association co-op, made a bid to the state’s broadband deployment fund to provide area high-speed service. The company planned to put in fiber optic cable, which provides the fastest service currently available.

But CenturyLink has been in the area longer and has that right of first refusal. That means they could bid to provide that internet service and take over the grant.

That’s exactly what happened in Ridgway, in Ouray County. CenturyLink elected to provide internet service through copper lines. That’s about 10 times slower than fiber optic and can be more expensive to customers.

That’s not fair to the customers or to the businesses that wanted to provide the better service, according to the bill’s House sponsors, Republican Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango. The bill was marshaled through the Senate by Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, who is also a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 2.

House Bill 1099 won’t take away that right of first refusal. But it would mandate that the companies exercising that right provide service equal to or better than the original bid and at the same or lower cost.

The third effort this week to ramp up rural broadband comes from the office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Denver, who this week launched a new initiative known as “Connect Colorado.”

In a statement issued Friday, Bennet said the initiative’s top priority will be to help rural Colorado communities compete for $600 million in new federal funding for broadband loans and grants.

The funds would come from the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill signed into law Friday by President Trump. The measure includes a new pilot program to be run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department already has a program, known as Community Connect, that funds rural broadband and is available to state and local governments, tribes, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Eligible communities in the existing program include rural areas where internet speeds are less than 10 megabytes per second (Mbps)  download and one Mbps upload.

This program is separate from the auction for rural broadband funds from the Federal Communications Commission that will take place July 24. The Colorado General Assembly has already passed two bills, one already signed into law, to help the broadband deployment board take advantage of any monies that could be available to states either before or after the auction.

“High-speed, reliable, affordable broadband is essential for our communities to thrive in the 21st-century economy,” Bennet said in the Friday statement. Colorado’s local leaders, especially in rural areas, have been at the forefront of innovative approaches to deliver that caliber of service to their neighbors. We must do everything we can to build on their work, with the goal of delivering high-quality broadband to every community across Colorado.”

Bennet’s Connect Colorado initiative is intended to help applicants with the application process, which he said can be both confusing and onerous.

For more information on the initiative, contact one of Bennet’s regional offices or send an email to broadband@bennet.senate.gov.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.