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Last week, grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was announced to connect rural communities to High-Speed Broadband in Dolores, San Miguel, and Montezuma counties. The “ReConnect Grant” totals $6.3 Million with the goal of expanding broadband in Southwest Colorado.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, announced that the USDA is awarding $6.3 million to Emery Telecommunications & Video Inc. to expand broadband service. Last spring, Bennet wrote a letter to USDA in support of Emery Telecommunications’ application for funding from the ReConnect Program.

USDA’s ReConnect Loan and Grant Program launched in 2018 as a pilot program to expand broadband service to primarily unserved rural areas. Bennet helped to increase funding for the ReConnect Program in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Mears Engineering, on behalf of Mt. Princeton, began plowing in broadband along CR 162 between U.S. 285 and Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort, as evidenced in this Oct. 22, 2019 photo.

This begs the question; when might such grant funding be available for Chaffee, Fremont, and Lake counties?

Last spring, Chaffee County already saw the impact of less-than optimal broadband on families, when the schools moved to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and children struggled to get online for remote learning. The county, especially the northern end of the county and Chalk Creek Canyon continue to struggle with connectivity.

While a small project managed to get new broadband as far as Mt. Princeton Hot Springs last year, the length of Chalk Creek Canyon remains uncovered.

USDA will provide funding to Emery Telecommunications through its ReConnect program to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network that will connect homes, farms, ranches, small businesses, and local anchor institutions to high-speed broadband. With new USDA funding, Emery Telecommunications will connect more than 1,600 Coloradans in Dolores, San Miguel, and Montezuma counties.

“During the pandemic, Coloradans have come to rely on broadband more than ever to work, learn, and connect remotely. Yet many of our rural areas still lack access to quality broadband because of the high cost of deployment in areas like Southwest Colorado,” said Bennet. “I welcome USDA’s investment to deploy more high-speed broadband in Dolores, San Miguel, and Montezuma Counties, and I’ll continue fighting for resources until all of our communities have access to affordable, high-speed broadband no matter where they live.”

This year, says his staff, Bennet has taken several actions to expand broadband deployment and help close the digital divide:

In June, Bennet introduced the BRIDGE Act of 2020 to provide $30 billion in flexible funding to States and $1 billion to Tribal Governments to deploy affordable, high-speed broadband in unserved and underserved communities nationwide, provided new networks meet minimum requirements for speed and affordability.

In May, Bennet introduced the Emergency Educational Connections Act to help students access mobile hotspots and Wi-Fi enabled devices during the pandemic.

In April, Bennet called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to coordinate with other federal agencies to ensure that the millions of Americans newly eligible for SNAP or Medicaid due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic are also informed of their eligibility for the Lifeline program, which offers discounted internet access for low-income Americans.

In March, Bennet also wrote to the FCC to ensure Americans are not disconnected from the Lifeline program during the crisis and called on the country’s top internet companies to keep families connected and to waive data caps and overage fees until the pandemic has ended.