House goes rural: expanding broadband and streamlining education
Broadband: coming to a rural community near you
The House gave initial approval to a package of bipartisan telecommunication bills legislators hope will bring Colorado’s laws and regulations up to speed with new technology and expand rural access to broadband. Here’s a rundown of the policy that makes it all possible:
HB 1328, incentivizing rural broadband: All Colorado telecomm ratepayers pitch in to the High Cost Support Mechanism fund, which offsets the financial burden of bringing telephone service to rural areas where the consumer base isn’t dense enough to make it profitable. This bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Don Coram of Montrose and Rep. Angela Williams of Denver, includes broadband as a service eligible for this rural access funding.
Coram, who has held meetings on the issue throughout rural Colorado, said the bill was a long time in the making.
The measure creates a distinct Broadband Development Board which will award construction grants to companies wishing to bring broadband to “underserved” areas of Colorado. A community is considered “broadband underserved” when its download rate can’t exceed four Mbps and upload rates hover around one Mbps.
HB 1329, in which lawmakers say they won’t regulate Skype: Voice over internet protocol, or VoIP, is the technology behind such miracles of vocal communication as Skype, Google Voice, and your bundled internet and “telephone” (yup, it’s VoIP) services. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission doesn’t do much VoIP regulation currently and this bill essentially promises providers that they won’t in the future.
Some lawmakers worried that agreeing not to regulate VoIP when the technology is still so new might come back to bite them as practices evolve. The sponsors, Reps. Angela Williams of Denver and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, said that the bill establishes current regulatory practices as law and emphasized that the legislature can always come back and add more regulations as the technology develops.
HB 1331, deregulating landlines: This bill, also sponsored by Reps. Williams and Murray, is perhaps the most controversial of the telecomm bills and is the policy that has people worried that landlines will will cease to connect before VoIP fully takes over.
Williams emphasized that this deregulation bill does contain consumer protections. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission will continue to oversee areas where there’s no competition among telecomm providers to insure that folks still have affordable connections and access to 911 services.
The commission won’t oversee basic services in areas that are considered competitive, however. This has many worrying that rates could skyrocket across the state, or that those who want to keep landlines even if broadband is available may not be able to.
“For many [in my district] their landline is their lifeline,” said Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida. “I need to be able to assure people that until fiber optic runs rampant over South Park, they’ll be covered.”
Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling took the floor to assuage those fears, saying that he, like many lawmakers, has been getting anxious calls from seniors in his district about the impact the bill might have on landlines and the associated emergency and security services.
“The AARP has been using scare tactics … . No land lines are going to be lost. You’re not losing your landlines,” he said.
Several rounds of discussion centered on whether clarifying language could be added to the bill to make absolutely sure people know they’re not at risk of being left without any way to call 911. Ultimately, however, the chamber agreed that the language of the bill itself was solid enough.
HB 1330, to get our terminology in order: This simple technical update passed swiftly today, it provides legal definitions for many of the terms used in the rest of the telecomm package.
“We have some definitions that are 20 years old and as you know, technology changes very quickly,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Angela Williams of Denver.
HB 1327, making it easier in the trenches: Sponsored by Rep. Angela Williams of Denver and Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, this measure makes it easier for broadband providers down in the trenches, literally. It allows broadband companies to work with the Colorado Department of Transit to lay telecommunications lines in conjunction with their projects. It also shaves off regulatory burdens, demands a quick permitting process for broadband expansion and gives broadband companies the same right-of-way for their cables as for traditional telephone lines.
House cuts paperwork for rural school districts
Today Salida Rep. Jim Wilson, a former school superintendent, got initial approval for his bill to allow smaller school districts — those with fewer than 1,200 students — to file some Department of Education reports biannually instead of annually. Ideally, HB 1204 would allow administratively short-staffed districts to spend more time teaching and less time shuffling papers about teaching.
Rep. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said she’d vote for Wilson’s bill but that her real concern is condensing some of the districts so that the state can more cost effectively serve students.Wilson said such a condensation would mean rural students spend more time on the bus each day than in the classroom, but Gerou countered that it was really condensing administration she was most interested in.
“Right now every one of your superintendents are also janitors and grant writers,” she quipped.
The measure got hearty initial approval today and likely will come up for a final vote this week.
You can go home again
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to keep folks with disabilities from living within the community if at all possible. Since then, Colorado’s four regional centers that house and provide services to people with intellectual disabilities have been working with disability rights advocates to move people into more individually-tailored living situations.
Today, Reps. Cheir Gerou of Evergreen and Jenise May of Aurora brought a bill to evaluate how those regional centers work and how they can best serve their continued residents. HB 1338 would create a task force to figure out just how many beds are needed in regional centers and also to see if a center might need to shut down and its resources used elsewhere. In that case, the task force would also make recommendations about how to transition people and preserve a place in a regional center for them if the transition doesn’t go well.
The overall goal of the legislation, the sponsors say, is to make sure Colorado’s services are as individualized and efficient as possible.
The measure got initial approval today and will come up for a final vote later this week.
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