WASHINGTON – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced this week that Colorado has been awarded more than $826 million from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program.
U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper and Gov. Jared Polis, welcomed the announcement.
The $826 million in funding comes from the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2021, setting aside $42.5 billion for the BEAD program. The program works to provide funding to provide high-speed internet to communities and build essential infrastructure making it one of the most significant broadband investments in American history.
“It is unacceptable that millions of Americans – disproportionately from rural areas, low-income neighborhoods, and communities of color – still lack access to the internet,” Bennet in a news release. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included historic broadband funding to close the digital divide and help every family participate in the 21st century economy.”
Lacking high-speed internet access has been a burden in Colorado, according to La Plata County Commissioner Matt Salka, as lockdowns started in 2020. With services moved online, many residents found they lacked the ability to access online medical examinations, log onto Zoom for school and telework, or connect with online therapists.
“The necessity (of high-speed internet) to me is almost like a utility,” Salka said. “It’s like water, it’s like sewer, and telephones and cable TV.”
One big issue in Region 9 Economic Development District concerns the lack of so-called middle mile broadband accessibility – the physical fiber-optic infrastructure that is crucial for enabling internet connection and access. The fiber lines themselves carry large amounts of data over long distances at high speeds. Salka said there is a lack of middle mile connectivity.
Through the BEAD Program, every state received $100 million to use on improving their broadband access. The remainder of the money was left for the underserved communities within each state. Underserved households are currently defined as households with internet service running below 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds.
According to Polis, the fund will be used to achieve the goal of connecting high-speed internet access to 99% of Colorado households by 2027.
Currently, about 10% of locations in Colorado are underserved or unserved and roughly 190,000 households lack internet access altogether.
La Plata County had started preparing for the infrastructure bill since late May, releasing surveys that asked residents to take an internet speed test or to report if they do not have internet access.
Salka said he was surprised by the large sum of the fund given to Colorado, saying he looks forward to learning how to receive as much funding as possible for the five counties that make up Region 9.
The NTIA had awarded 19 states with more than $1 billion to use on broadband infrastructure, with Texas receiving the largest sum of $3.3 billion. Now, the 64 counties in Colorado must find a way to distribute the BEAD funds among themselves.
“It used to be, ‘How can I help me? How can I help myself out, my town, my community?’ and with all this funding coming in, that message has really changed,” Salka said, “We’re closer, we’re fighting for one another, we’re larger and we are doing whatever it takes because we know there is a huge fiber gap in our area. ”
Mina Allen is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.