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Get real about broadband in rural areas

Electricity is a modern necessity of life, not a luxury. That necessity ought to be found in every village, in every home, and on every farm in every part of the United States.”

– President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Carlin Walsh

We sit at a pivotal time in our nation’s history. The passage of $42 billion in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment funding appropriated by Congress will be distributed by each state through competitive grants in a few short months. Colorado is set to receive between $800 million and $1 billion to bridge the rural-urban digital divide and help connect America’s rural, underserved population with high-speed broadband.

An additional $10 billion was appropriated under the American Rescue Plan Act to help provide reliable connectivity, known as Capital Project Fund funding. The Capital Project Fund represents $180 million to Colorado to address needs “laid bare by the global pandemic, especially in rural America.”

I believe these funds represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver a lasting impact to rural and underserved America in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

Today, reliable internet is a necessity and essential utility. As such, Gov. Jared Polis has mandated that 99% of Colorado achieve connectivity, which is defined as 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed, by 2027. “We will invest in our rural communities, continue bringing broadband to every corner of our state so that students and small business owners from Fort Morgan to Fruita can seize opportunity,” the governor said in his 2021 State of the State address.

The broadband equity and capital project funding has been likened to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration, which provided loans to local electric cooperatives to help fund the construction of power lines, substations and infrastructure. The loans held the co-ops accountable for maintaining a sustainable organization focused on local needs. The result was every home and every farm was electrified. In fact, the number of rural premises electrified went from less than 10% in 1936 to more than 95% by 1956, including an estimated 2.4 million farms.

Now let’s talk telecom.

America has spent well in excess of $150 billion during the past 20 years to expand broadband nationwide and, still today, many of Colorado’s rural communities are not connected to high-speed internet. It is hard to understand how Colorado will achieve its ambitious 99% by 2027 goal based on where the chips are falling with the state’s mapping data.

The map matters. The state broadband office recently divided the state into two tiers, with Tier 1 counties being the most underserved. Because they have less access to reliable, high-speed internet, Tier 1 counties have access to the largest pool of grant funding and are required to provide a smaller dollar match if awarded a grant. Tier 2 counties are considered more served, and are held to a 50% grant-match requirement and have access to a much smaller pool of capital: less than $25 million.

Several weeks ago, the Colorado Broadband Office downgraded a handful of rural counties to Tier 2 from their original designation as Tier 1. This is exactly backward.

In Colorado’s rugged terrain, getting broadband across the last mile to every home and farm is cost prohibitive without access to significant funding sources.

Let’s finish where we started – the work ahead is about getting every home and every farm connected. Nothing about that job is glamorous, but it needs to be accomplished to create a Colorado for all. Some of these projects will be expensive and will require creativity. They may connect only a few homes and one community anchor institution. But that is what the money is intended for: every home, every farm – 99% by 2027.

Carlin Walsh of Buena Vista is CEO of Aristata Communications, which serves nearly 5,000 customers. He contributes to The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned, award-winning news outlet based in Denver.