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America has a problem with broadband, and because of distance, density and geography, therefore, so does Colorado and the rural west.

In this day and age, the infrastructure of broadband, allowing for internet and mobile connection isn’t just a luxury, it is as much an economic necessity as roads and bridges. To be competitive in business, to bring products to market, to be able to educate or be educated, to know and understand the news that is shaping the world — these things are a challenge today just as it was in the 1930s when the Rural Electric Cooperatives brought lights and power to America. Only today, they require an internet connection.

Image by Russell Brandom and William Joel for The Verge.

But all is not equal or fair in the world of broadband deployment. Areas without strong internet are being left behind economically.  Not only is connection not equally distributed geographically, but it is also weighted heavily toward areas of population,  frankly affluent populations, once again leaving rural areas and regions — poor counties, tribal areas, wide-open spaces, and rugged terrains out of the network distribution.

While rural areas can’t even get an internet signal, deployment of broadband by private companies tends to ensure that the latest 5G upgrades go to highly -populated areas, because that is where the money is.

That broadband (high-speed internet) is not equally available across the breadth and depth of the United States is also a fact. While the east coast states are fairly saturated, the middle and western swath of the country  — where the deer and the antelope play — is not equally blessed.

Colorado’s broadband inequity appears to be related not just to geography and density, but affluence. For a county-by-county interactive look at the above map of the country’s current broadband coverage, follow this link:

Here’s a Sample of broadly inequitable broadband across Colorado Counties:

County        % Broadband Deployment

Douglas              94

Arapahoe           74

Pitkin                   69

Denver                65

Jefferson            62

Eagle                   61

Weld                   59

Chaffee              33

Gunnison           32

Lake                    30

Clear Creek        25

Park                     12

Saguache            10

Hinsdale               6

Custer                   5

Rural counties with smaller populations such as Hinsdale, and Saguache, and several of the eastern Colorado rural counties, have had to fight for any broadband installation. Many Colorado counties such as Chaffee, Lake, and Park, don’t just have terrain and geographic barriers, but lower average incomes than metro counties or affluent mountain resort counties such as Pitkin, where influence leaders have been known to fight for and fund high-speed internet.

Whole swaths of many rural counties like Custer County have little or no broadband, relying on unpredictable satellite delivery. Rural broadband providers such as Colorado Central Telecom often fight years for grant funding and access rights to deploy broadband in what are essentially under-served areas.

“Broadband is an ever growing importance to our lifestyle and our commerce and our ability to conduct day to day business especially here in a rural area,” said Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker. “We’re remarkably dependant upon it for all sorts of daily activities. And it doesn’t exist without the supporting infrastructure — wireless, fiber optic cable, and switching systems. It might seem like magic but it isn’t. We have to have the hardware.”

Colorado Central Telecom is one of several small Colorado high-speed internet companies that have worked hard to bring Internet to rural counties. Seeking out grants, they have worked with small mountain municipalities like Buena Vista, to provide internet for entire downtown areas. That effort allows visitors and retail businesses to function on what is increasingly becoming the 21st-century main street.

Colorado State House Progress on Broadband

Sen. Kerry Donovan speaks before the signing of SB19-107 in Salida in 2019. She spent five years moving the broadband infrastructure bill toward passage that was signed into law that day. Photo by Jan Wondra.

The Colorado Recovery Plan includes a proposed $50 to 75 million in broadband investments. Theoretically, this includes funding for the middle and last mile to expand broadband infrastructure in response to the social and economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While that plan includes an entire section of the recovery plan which is focused on a goal of supporting rural Colorado, nowhere in that plan does it say that the broadband and high-speed internet goal mentioned will be specifically focused on rural Colorado.

This afternoon, word comes from the General Assembly that HB21-1109 seeks to extend broadband services to critically unserved communities in the state and ensure that everyone can get connected to the internet.

Specifically, the bill adds a new definition of “critically unserved” to better categorize the needs of Coloradans that don’t have adequate broadband connections. It also requires the Broadband Deployment Board to ensure limited state dollars for broadband investments are targeted to areas of Colorado that lack access in a timely and efficient manner.

“Going to school these days requires books, backpacks, and broadband,” said Senator Bridges, D-Greenwood Village. “Especially after this last year, more and more of our economy is online, and we have an obligation to make sure every Coloradan can participate in that economy. Connecting unserved and underserved communities to high-speed reliable internet creates more opportunity for everyone, and increases statewide equity and prosperity for all of our families.”

FCC Emergency Broadband Benefit

Colorado State Senator and Democratic Senate president pro tempore Kerry Donovan has been advocating for rural broadband for years in the Colorado Statehouse. Earlier this year she put her support behind the Federal Communications Commission’s new Emergency Broadband Benefit to lower the cost of the increasingly critical service during the COVID-19 pandemic — up to $50 a month for eligible households, and up to $75 for those on qualifying tribal lands.

The program also offers a discount of up to $100 per household toward the purchase of a computer, laptop, or tablet. Enrollment in the program is accessible here.

Enrollment will be available from participating broadband internet providers, or directly from the Universal Service Administrative Company. A list of participating internet providers in Colorado is available by clicking here or by calling 833-511-0311 between 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. any day of the week.