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Rural-area broadband gets boost

House approvals bring telecom law up to date

DENVER – Bills to boost rural broadband and rewrite Colorado’s telecommunications laws sailed through the House on Wednesday after four years of failed efforts.

The bills would rewrite Colorado’s telecom laws, which predate widespread use of the Internet, and would begin to provide money to build high-speed Internet in areas that lack access.

“It’s not going to give us the funding we need. But it’s going to give us the hope,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who sponsored one of the bills.

For four years, a successful telecom reform bill has been the legislative equivalent of catching a leprechaun riding a unicorn. Opposition from one segment of Colorado’s telecom industry – phone, cellular and cable companies – always killed the effort.

Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, has sponsored telecom reform bills for four years and didn’t see a successful vote until Wednesday.

“We will be able to connect our schools. We will be able to connect our hospitals for tele-health. We will be able to connect our business owners in rural areas,” Williams said.

Phone companies, primarily Centurylink, get money to serve hard-to-reach customers through a high-cost fund that is filled with fees paid by their customers. Coram’s bill would take some of that fund and use it to make grants for broadband construction.

At first, only a sliver of the $52 million fund is expected to be redirected to broadband, but supporters expect the amount to grow through the years. The program could provide seed money for counties and companies to get federal grants, Coram said.

With telecom companies all supporting this year’s bills, AARP has emerged as the key opposition.

As part of the package of bills, regular telephone service in many parts of the state would be deregulated. Currently, the Public Utilities Commission sets price caps on basic phone service.

Critics point to evidence that landline costs in other states have risen after deregulation. Older people prefer landlines for their reliability, according to AARP.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said during debate Monday that landlines often are the only way to communicate for some of his constituents, especially in areas that lack cellphone coverage.

“It is yesterday’s technology, but when it’s the only technology you have, that’s the concern,” Wilson said.

Coram began working last fall on getting rural groups to coalesce around the broadband bills, and that made the difference this year, he said.

“We had the rural people at the table. They were telling us what they needed and how they needed it,” he said.

The bills now go to the Senate, and sponsors say they are optimistic that they will pass.


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