Experts say it helps, but local effort and new ideas are needed
Broadband access is lagging behind in several communities in southwest Colorado, but increased federal funding could help fill the gaps.
Promulgated just a few weeks ago, the Law on Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs provided for $ 65 billion in broadband financing. The bill is modeled after Senator Michael Bennet’s BRIDGE Act, introduced in June 2020, which proposed funding to roll out affordable broadband to underserved areas.
“We’re about to make the biggest investment in affordable broadband and broadband ever in US history, and Colorado is leading the way,” Bennet wrote in a press release.
The money will be divided among each state, but the amount depends on who needs it most. Dan Harms, vice president of Grid Solutions at La Plata Electric Association, said Colorado will likely receive nearly $ 1 billion.
“I think we are seeing a historic opportunity that may not happen again,” Harms said. “There is so much funding. There has always been funding for broadband, but the infrastructure bill put an exclamation mark right in the middle of it.
Senator John Hickenlooper applauded the funding and recently introduced his own bill to improve broadband access. The Reforming Broadband Connectivity Act aims to expand broadband access by strengthening the funding mechanisms of the Universal Service Fund, which provides funds for broadband expansion to low-income households and high-cost areas, including including some rural communities.
The special focus on improving broadband in rural areas supports initiatives by counties in southwest Colorado to fill gaps in areas where broadband is lacking or not available. Ninety-three percent of rural Colorado communities have sufficient connectivity, an increase from 91% in April 2021. But during the pandemic, people being forced to work from home and meet online to school, the slow Internet has always caused problems.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as an always-on high-speed Internet connection with minimum download speeds of 25 megabits per second and download speeds of 3 Mbps.
Guinn Unger previously served on the LPEA board of directors and in February created a petition urging the LPEA to take the lead in creating high-speed internet for its members. Currently, the LPEA partners with private companies that provide high-speed Internet access to households, but it does not have its own high-speed service.
Unger said that until LPEA launches its own broadband service, as the Delta-Montrose Electric Association has done, federal funding won’t have such a big effect.
It highlights the “mid-mile” problem, the segment of a network that connects major operators to local networks, as needing to be addressed before the larger “last mile” problem, the final stage that connects services to households. individual. or other buildings, can be approached.
“For the average person, especially in a rural area, the infrastructure is not there to bring broadband to a single business or an individual’s home at a reasonable price,” Unger said. “For me, the main problem is this last mile. The reason it’s not there is because it’s very expensive.
Harms said the LPEA has worked behind the scenes for the past two years to lay the foundation for the interstate broadband system. He said the increased funding and grants will allow the LPEA to partner with more businesses interested in branching out to connect that last mile to households.
The state has already provided $ 80 million in grants to internet companies and local governments over the years to connect the internet to customers.
“There’s a lot of capital, a lot of money to get it,” Harms said of LPEA’s decision not to launch its own broadband service. “We assessed what it would take for the LPEA to do it, and we did not feel it was an economically responsible thing to do with our members’ money.”
Unger hopes that the scale of the effort will increase and that the money, which is also allocated from the US bailout adopted in March 2021, will allow states and private companies to be innovative in their efforts.
“It sounds like a lot of money, but the amount it would actually take to bring broadband to rural areas easily runs into the trillions of dollars,” he said. “You have to be creative with this problem, that way you add money to the solution.”
Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and graduated in December 2021 from American University in Washington, DC