Opinion

Weist: Rural Colorado counting on legislature for broadband access

Author: Jeff Weist - April 5, 2017 - Updated: April 3, 2017

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Jeff Weist
Jeff Weist

When it comes to broadband access, Colorado has a mountainous challenge — literally.

The vast majority of Coloradans live in areas well served by multiple, private-sector, high-speed internet providers. Cable providers alone have invested over $8 billion of their own capital to upgrade their network. Most cable customers in Colorado will have access to affordable, 1-gigabit-per-second connections this year without the expenditure of a penny of public funds. That is a remarkable story.

But parts of mountain and rural Colorado are missing out. These more sparsely populated and geographically isolated areas need help from the Colorado Legislature to bridge the digital divide. And real progress can and should be made this year.

Fortunately, there’s already a mechanism to support broadband buildout in the rural communities that need it — the Colorado Broadband Fund, created by the Colorado Legislature in 2014.

The Broadband Fund is supposed to receive money redirected from outdated subsidies for telephone lines —subsidies that are unnecessary in areas with multiple phone providers. The idea of the Broadband Fund was simple: dial back subsidies for century-old telephone technology and give a boost to help build out and deploy broadband infrastructure to support economic development, health care and education in rural Colorado. 

However, the Legislature’s best-laid plans led to little progress in this area.

Because the legal mechanism for transferring unneeded telephone subsidies into broadband subsidies is outdated and ambiguous, the Broadband Fund received just a drop of what it should have by now.

It’s time for the Legislature to re-engage to ensure the funds are appropriately directed into the Broadband Fund.

To accomplish this, the Legislature should create a bright-line definition of “effective competition” for telephone service to limit subsidies to areas where there is only one landline provider. That will stop tens of millions of dollars from being wasted supporting old telephone technology where unsubsidized competition already exists. Those savings — under current law — would then flow to the Broadband Fund.

While it’s at it, the Legislature should also fix a 2005 law known as Senate Bill 152. It ensures local voters have a say in whether public funds are used to duplicate existing private sector broadband and other telecom services.

When it originally was passed, this protection made sense, given the extremely competitive and constantly evolving nature of broadband requiring continual and extensive capital expenditures. (Comcast, for example, doubles the capacity of its network every 18-24 months and increased speeds 17 times in the past 15 years.) As a result, a number of attempts by local governments to compete with the private sector ended badly for their local taxpayers.

But broadband companies aren’t afraid of competing on a level playing field where local government abides by the same rules the government imposes on all other private providers.

Any changes to SB 152 — including the elimination of the requirement for a local vote — must ensure local governments can’t undermine competition by blocking access to public rights of way, imposing discriminatory taxes on private providers or using their captive, monopoly electric utility customers to subsidize broadband.

There’s significant potential for abuse when powerful governmental entities decide to compete with the private sector, so transparency and accountability are necessary.

Let’s be clear: Repealing SB 152’s requirement for local votes won’t deliver broadband to a single unserved rural Colorado household. That’s why we also need to focus scarce public resources on truly unserved rural areas and not duplicate what private sector has already done.

Jeff Weist

Jeff Weist