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Hickenlooper hears obstacles with improving broadband in Southwest Colorado

Freshman senator spoke with tribal leaders, others about struggles
A new broadband tower rises in Plainfield, Vermont.

Community leaders across Southwest Colorado, including the two Native American tribes, told U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper that high costs, rugged landscapes and federal rules have hampered efforts to improve broadband in the region.

The local leaders met Friday with Hickenlooper as part of a virtual round table.

A number of physical and administrative obstacles have prevented Southwest Colorado from being able to invest in broadband infrastructure, said Director of Southwest Colorado Council of Governments Miriam Gillow-Wiles. High mountains, “empty space” throughout the region and the rules and regulations of federal and state agencies present a challenge for building better broadband networks.

The state and federal agencies responsible for overseeing broadband infrastructure often have a variety of standards and definitions for sufficient broadband that are not up to modern standards, Gillow-Wiles said. The Federal Communications Commission’s reporting methods also present Southwest Colorado as more equipped and served with suitable broadband than it really is, Gillow-Wiles said.

“As we have gone from 3G to 4G, and then 5G in the metropolitan areas where we have really, really good service, the rural areas where 3G was predominant beforehand, have really suffered with respect to being able to get any coverage at all,” said David Black, a trustee with the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.

Hickenlooper is on the Senate Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, which oversees legislation related to broadband.

“It's really about your issues and how can I be a useful, constructive ally,” Hickenlooper said during the roundtable. “Not only in getting funding and resources, but also maybe beating back the FCC on occasion.”

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper met with community leaders from across Southwest Colorado on Friday as part of a virtual roundtable to discuss rural broadband.

Southern Ute Education Department Director LaTitia Taylor said 72% of residents on the Southern Ute reservation do not have Wi-Fi, which has caused issues for remote learning during the pandemic, particularly for students.

“It's actually affected their education,” Taylor said. “Some of our kids have dropped a year behind in their education.”

The tribe has been working with the Ignacio School District and used outside funding to buy hot spots and technology to help students attend school and tutoring sessions. Taylor said the tribe is also working with Fort Lewis College with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to acquire technology that can be accessible to students who want to do remote learning outside their homes.

“There's times where we tell our students: ‘Go drive to this parking lot and try to sit there and do your homework,’” Taylor said. “But of course, if the student can't drive and the parent works, then that's tough on the student to try to get to somewhere where there's broadband to do their work.”

The Southern Ute Tribe’s work in securing better broadband infrastructure has benefited nontribal residents as well.

“This broadband initiative that we're trying to push for, it doesn't just serve the Southern Ute Tribe; it serves the community,” said Bruce Valdez, vice chairman for the tribe. “The whole community is suffering here, and that's all students, not just tribal.”

For the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, some of the biggest obstacles are a lack of capital for infrastructure project investments, a lack of qualified onsite staff and a lack of training opportunities for tribal members in technology career paths, said Bernadette Cuthair, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe director of planning and development. Cuthair said broadband companies also apply for grants on behalf of tribes without the tribe’s consent or say.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe received initial approval for a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Agency to build better broadband technology between Cortez and Towaoc, Cuthair said. The tribe is also working with local stakeholders outside the tribe.

While many of the leaders in Southwest Colorado have laid out plans for how to build and invest in better broadband in their areas, there are many obstacles for them to receive proper funding.

Among these obstacles is the fact that many government agencies will not reinvest federal money where funding has previously been given, even if those areas are stuck using old broadband technologies that set them behind updated broadband standards, Gillow-Wiles said.

“That's one of those challenges that I think that we as locals can’t solve and the state can’t solve,” Gillow-Wiles said. “That's maybe a hole that the federal government and (Hickenlooper) could work on solving.”

About $100 million would be needed to supply sufficient broadband across Southwest Colorado.

“The solutions are actually not terribly difficult,” Gillow-Wiles said. “It's just a whole heck of a lot of money.”

Grace George is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.