Lawmakers race to secure federal broadband money

Sean MacEntee via Flickr:Creative Commons.
This story was updated Wednesday afternoon to reflect a vote by the House. 

The Colorado House Wednesday passed a bill aimed at securing as much as $250 million in federal grant money to pay for high-speed internet infrastructure in rural areas of the state. 

Closing the so-called “digital divide” is a high priority among lawmakers this year. About 80 percent of the state has access to high-speed internet. In some areas in Denver, internet speeds allow users to download a two-hour movie in about eight seconds. But across the Continental Divide, in places like Alma, it would take two hours to download the same movie.

Lawmakers aren’t particularly worried about movie download speeds — but they know access to the internet affects the ability to learn, work and get medical attention.

“We need to ensure that communities outside the Front Range have the tools to compete in a global economy by providing more broadband service, more teachers and more medical services, just for starters,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran in her opening remarks of the legislative session.

Internet providers often have trouble recovering costs in rural areas due to small customer bases. That’s why some lawmakers want money to subsidize the cables and towers across the state. The federal grant would come via the Connect America Fund program, which is currently open only to private companies. But the FCC recently granted New York state a waiver allowing it to participate. Colorado lawmakers hope to win the same exemption. 

Another proposal that has bipartisan support, Senate Bill 2, would direct money from a surcharge on landlines into a fund supporting broadband infrastructure development.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said during his State of the State address that “legislation and funds are needed to ensure a full broadband buildout in rural areas.” At a news conference last year, Hickenlooper even considered calling lawmakers into special session to come up with a broadband funding plan.

Last year’s budget made $9.4 million available for rural broadband grants, according to the Joint Budget Committee report, but “no additional funding marked for rural broadband and no additional grant cycles are planned,” leaving the “program with a lack of sustainable funding.”

Currently, the state uses a surcharge on voice service on cell phone and landline bills to pay for Internet infrastructure. But the revenue from this fund is declining as more users go wireless. Total contributions to the fund were $43.3 million in 2015 and are estimated to be $38.4 million in 2016, according to the Joint Budget Committee report. 

Correction: This story was corrected on Jan. 26 using annual contributions to the High Cost Support Mechanism fund instead of a quarterly comparison. 

Title photo: Sean MacEntee via Flickr Creative Commons