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Utility poles, complex permitting prolong digital divide

On the Western Slope, we are lucky enough to be part of an incredibly beautiful and unique landscape. From the national monuments to the Great Sand Dunes, we live among some of the most valued places in the country.

What many people outside of the region do not recognize is that there are living – and working – communities scattered across the Western Slope, maintaining businesses, schools, stores and restaurants that require connection to high-speed internet. Without access to reliable broadband, it becomes unimaginably difficult to keep up with the rest of the world.

We saw this intensify during the pandemic and are still trying to recover. Towns struggled to stay afloat as the entire world became digital and areas without high-speed connectivity suffered. Sen. John Hickenlooper recognized this and was integral in passing last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. By allocating $65 billion to expand connectivity, lawmakers have equipped us with a historic opportunity to level the playing field and get everyone online.

As we get one significant step closer to pursuing our goal of bridging the nation’s digital divide, a pivotal yet often overlooked process – inefficient utility pole access rules – could prevent the law from doing as it was intended and connecting every American.

Utility poles are not typically owned by internet providers and the providers must first be granted access by the pole owners – often co-ops, local utilities and electric companies – to affix their broadband technology to the poles. A complicated permitting system creates problems for a process that should be straightforward.

Lengthy disputes can happen between pole owners and internet providers, regarding pole replacement and maintenance cost. Those of us that need the broadband connectivity are the ones who suffer the consequences of unreliable or nonexistent high-speed internet.

Coloradans are stuck without telehealth appointments, virtual business meetings and online learning as different entities argue over an outdated system to determine who is responsible for what.

Coloradans deserve more than to be in the middle of this fight. We have come so far with the infrastructure package and are close to closing the digital divide now, thanks to federal funding opportunities.

What we need now is a clear and expedited system for how to resolve disagreements over cost-sharing when it comes to poles so that broadband can be expanded as quickly as possible. Our federal leaders have the authority to make sure there is a transparent timeline for resolving disagreements.

We do not have time to waste. Hickenlooper has championed this issue before and I urge him to continue his work to fix this outdated system so Coloradans do not have to worry about being left behind.

Kevin Kuns is chair of the Montrose Democratic Party. He grew up between Wyoming and Tripoli, Libya.