Colorado Broadband Bill Seeks Access Answers

For tourists and residents alike, much of Colorado is one amazing vista after the next. I nearly circumnavigated it on a recent trip and was re-blown away at how incrediblely beautiful it is (recommendation: stop by Great Sand Dunes National Park).

But those incredible mountains are a two-way street. The same ridges that make it great ski country make it awful wireless country. All those mountains make it hard to provide ubiquitous wireless access - leave the interstate or urban areas behind and you are lucky to see the old "1x" show up on your smartphone.

When I go on vacation, I like to remain connected to find weather reports, directions to my next destination, local cafes, etc. And like just about everyone, I really like to be connected where I live. The private telecom sector gets a failing grade for serving both residents and vacationers.

Don't forget that Colorado is one of the nineteen states that have barriers to publicly owned networks despite the refusal of cable and DSL companies to build next-generation networks. We've frequently written about Longmont's efforts to improve its broadband access despite that legislation.

Senate Bill 12-129 aims to identify areas of the state lacking sufficient acess to the Internet and seeking solutions. A local newspaper reported on testimony from local businesses suffering from the lack of investment:

Wendell Pryor, director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corp., testified to the impacts of limited bandwidth on businesses in that area.

Princeton Hot Springs Resort, an economic driver that generates the second-highest amount of sales tax among businesses in Chaffee County, is unable to process credit cards electronically when bandwidth traffic is high.

"The broadband is simply not sufficient to allow them to do that, so it's done manually," Pryor said.

He said Monarch Ski Resort, which anchors the winter tourist season in Chaffee County, asks the staff to shut off their computers in order to have adequate broadband availability for skiers and customers.

Meanwhile, it appears that CenturyLink and other providers are trying to water down the bill. As we have seen elsewhere, the big DSL companies want to define broadband at ludicrously low speeds to hide the fact that they are crippling local businesses by refusing to provide modern services.

Government Technology offers a deeper explanation of the bill, along with my thought that this bill is better than what most states are doing because most states are either doing nothing or narrowing the options for communities by creating barriers to community networks.

An original goal of the bill was to identify both those areas lacking in broadband access as defined by the FCC and those areas lacking in competitive access to such broadband (probably the vast majority of the state). But the competition aspect was dropped in committee - probably a friendly gesture to CenturyLink and others who pretend broadband has a lot of competition but hasten to stop anyone from actually examining it.

Colorado Mountains, courtesy of Hogs555

If the bill passes in current form, it would also develop an inventory of state-owned broadband assets -- something every state should probably develop.

This bill does not address public ownership or community networks but the discussions around it are relevant. Even though big corporations like CenturyLink try to cast publicly owned networks as a public v. private affair, the article reminds us that this issue is really everyone v. a few very big cable and DSL companies:

Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI), which represents county interests in the state, supports SB 12-129. Andy Karsian, the organization’s legislative coordinator, said various rural counties have had opportunities to attract employers, but they couldn’t seal the deal -- primarily due to a lack of high-speed connectivity those potential businesses require.

If CenturyLink were meeting local needs and allowing local businesses to thrive, communities would not be examining their capacity to build their own networks.

My greatest fear with the Colorado bill is that we will get another Advisory Panel or Task Force or some official body that will get nothing done because representatives of CenturyLink or Comcast or other big companies that benefit from the status quo will deadlock it. As I told GovTech,

“Unfortunately these advisory panels often end up stacked with representatives from DSL and cable companies that prefer the status quo until they can devise a scheme for the public to funnel more subsidies their way,” Mitchell said. “I hope that will not be the case in Colorado.”

Photo of Colorado's incredible mountains used under creative commons license, courtesy of Hogs555.


Let's fill up the bucket...

I love that we have leadership in Colorado taking this issue head on.   Kudos & much thanks to Gail!  She's putting in the time & effort to improve Rural Broadband in Colorado.  However, we need more than this bill delivers in rural Colorado.

An idea for your consideration:    Regional Pilot Projects

In 2009, NTIA awarded The Governor's Office of Information Technology(OIT) a $2.1 million federal grant for Broadband Data & Development.
$1.6 million of the grant provides for a 2 year assessment of broadband deployment across the state.
The remaining $500k is focused on planning & outreach activities.

OIT was subsequently awarded $3.3 million in additional funding which extends the mapping effort for 3 more years, and provides for creation of a data maintenance program.

With over $5 million invested in recent Colorado mapping & outreach efforts,  we should know very well today which areas of Colorado are un-served and under-served.  If un-studied areas remain, a few phone calls or a visit should button up any outstanding questions.

In the fall of 2010, NTIA awarded a $100.7 grant to Colorado largely on the basis that our broadband infrastructure in geographically & market challenged rural areas was so lacking that it was adversely affecting educational opportunities.  There is sure to be some useful data embodied in the justification (grant application) supporting that investment.

Practical Question:    Would it make sense at this point to focus our energies on beginning to support some Regional Pilot Projects?   We will immediately begin to address  inadequacies in Rural Broadband if we fund local broadband planning efforts in each region, and take on a few proof-of-concept infrastructure deployments?   We can look to the success of SCAN, Cortez FTTB, Crestone Telecom, etc.. as prime examples.  Well planned, funded & thoughtfully (locally) executed.

Each region could come up with one or two project proposals to present to a state-wide peer-review panel.  Regional LTPT's & EDC's would assist with sponsoring the proposals.  The peer-review panel will approve/deny/modify and recommend prevailing projects for funding.   Local matching funds will be required.  Each project area will be measured before & after, and then evaluated for overall performance.

It won't take gazillions in State or PUC funding to do some basic design work and set up a hand full of  "Regional Pilot Projects".    Many rural regions are thinking in this direction already, and it will really make a difference today at a local level to see some pilot funding for Rural Broadband development.   Specifically - planning & infrastructure.

For example, in the SanJuan corridor, obtaining funds to actually design a fiber route would be a real step forward.  Other areas may be ready for infrastructure investment today.

Investments from the high-cost fund will be far more effective when rural communities have the opportunity to guide some portion of the expenditures.

Just an idea..

Hope this helps!



Asset inventory a mixed bag

Statewide "asset inventories" are a mixed bag, because they often take a year or more to complete because many localities and state agencies don't really know what they have.  Then the report has to be studied.

It would be much simpler to simply say, "What we have is not adequate if our businesses can't conduct business."  We're not going to spend time documenting a snapshot of 20th century copper-based infrastructure.  We're going to focus on deploying 21st century networks that have the capacity to meet business needs for a minimum of twenty years.