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Colorado reaches 91% rural broadband coverage; efforts to improve internet for Utes move forward

Cellphone and rural broadband towers are seen in Alamosa County, Colorado with the Sangre de Cristos in the distance on Jan. 22, 2021. (John McEvoy/Special to The Colorado Sun)
Pending measure would help pay for infrastructure for tribes

One look at Colorado’s official broadband map and Bernadette Cuthair will tell you it’s wrong.

As the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s director of planning and development, Cuthair has been working to help her community access faster internet service. But the current broadband map makes it seem like the southwestern town of Towaoc, the base for the tribe, doesn’t need help. The map shows most of the town already has federally adequate speeds of 25 megabits or faster.

Not quite, she said.

“We have a very slow speed,” Cuthair said. “In many cases, the provider’s actually providing 3-megabits (download) and 500 kilobits (upload) for services according to their own website. … The Southwest Colorado region could benefit from more redundancy of services and options.”

It’s a sore topic that Ute Mountain Utes and other tribal communities have dealt with for years. Cuthair said the community has also had to contend with outsider companies applying for grants to serve the region “without the consent, authorization or tribal consultation.”

But she’s feeling more hopeful now that the state Legislature passed House Bill 1298, which, among many changes to the state’s broadband programs, set aside $20 million for the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes for broadband infrastructure. The measure awaits Gov. Jared Polis’ signature.

“That was good news to our ears,” Cuthair said, adding that state officials assured her that they won’t let someone else slip in and apply for the reserved broadband funds.

On the Colorado Broadband Map, the town of Towaoc where many members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe live, the blue areas represent broadband speeds that are greater or equal to 25 mbps but less than 100 mbps. The orange shows speeds that are between 10 to 25 mbps. The red is less than 10 mbps. Bernadette Cuthair, director of planning and development for the tribe, says the reality is speeds are more like 3 mbps down and 500 kilobits up. (Screenshot)

The Funding for Broadband Deployment bill is expected to get the state to 100% rural broadband coverage, a goal set in 2017 by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, when rural internet coverage was at 70%. The Colorado Broadband Office, created in the same year, has helped increase coverage to 91% by promoting grants from two state agencies to private internet providers and municipalities to build better service. Several projects are underway, including a new one on the Eastern Plains that will provide fiber gigabit to more than 50,000 homes and businesses.

The goal now is to increase coverage each year, said Antonio Martinez, who was named executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office in February.

“Dynamically, we’re probably growing broadband nationwide and in Colorado and in rural Colorado at a higher rate than we have in the past,” Martinez said. “If nothing less, I think COVID-19 really emphasized to all of our leadership that we needed to have access for education, for health care and for basic communications purposes, public safety. … I don’t think there’s something slowing (us) down. If anything, Colorado continues to lead the way and move forward and is moving forward very aggressively.”

By comparison, a 2020 FCC report on the state of America’s broadband access puts the number of rural Americans who cannot get 25 mbps down/3 mbps up speeds via terrestrial broadband at 77.7%. For Americans in tribal lands, access drops to 72.3%.

Inaccurate data and tribal concerns

But even Martinez, a native of San Luis Valley, realizes the state broadband map may not be 100% accurate. The office uses speed test data and his staff members survey internet providers twice a year. But ISP participation is voluntary, so data is imprecise.

Built into the pending legislation, he said, is a requirement to get better data, especially GIS data, short for geographic information systems.

“We’re going to require more data map accuracy to our GIS and mapping team so we have a better understanding of being able to tell the people in Colorado where service is good and where it’s lacking and where we need to make improvements,” he said.

Martinez left Colorado for the Air Force after attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and later went to Washington, D.C., where he worked for several federal agencies, including as a U.S. Department of Energy deputy director and a director in the State Department. He came home last year and has a ranch in the San Luis Valley. His ranch has OK internet service.

“There’s fiber to the central office in the town and then the town stretches for about three-quarters of a mile radius,” he said. “I live on a ranch a little farther from town. There’s no fiber capability at all.”

He relies on mobile internet that “is not 5G, but it’s fast enough.”

While San Luis Valley still has areas with slow to no internet coverage, Martinez said a prime area of his focus is the southwest part of the state where the Ute tribes live. He’s been talking to Cuthair to make sure they’re applying for public grants and to see what support his team can offer now that the tribes are considering building the infrastructure themselves.

“Wolf Creek Pass, running into Pagosa, Durango, Ignacio where a lot of our tribal lands are – I find that to be the area that would be the largest focus for all of us right now,” he said. “We’re working with a couple different firms to try to increase capacity and try to make sure that the tribes have better access to internet and mobile and wireless and fast mobile wireless.”

One of the larger internet providers in Southwest Colorado is Lumen, previously known as CenturyLink. The company said it offers 60 mbps but primarily in Cortez, and has some service in Towaoc, the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe.

But rural areas are tough because the cost of building infrastructure and maintenance isn’t affordable in sparsely populated areas, said Danielle Spears, a Lumen spokeswoman in an email.

“We believe that as policymakers look to make additional investments in internet infrastructure, broadband markets and consumers greatly benefit from innovation, which private sector providers have proven to be better positioned and more motivated to deliver over time,” she said. “We do not believe programs that favor government-owned networks are in the best interest of consumers or taxpayers.”

Cuthair with the Ute Mountain Utes has been working with consultants at NEO Connect to put together a broadband plan for her tribe. In it, they identified $23 million of shovel-ready projects to do things like provide backup wireless connections to the White Mesa education building and fiber to 534 homes and 146 businesses in Towaoc and on up to Cortez. The tribe has about 2,000 members in Colorado and Utah.

“But the problem has been here for quite a while that we don’t have the speeds and, of course, our students during COVID, they’re out there sitting in their cars (near a public hot spot) with their laptops trying to do their work, even in the wintertime,” said Cuthair, who said it’s been near impossible to have Zoom calls during the pandemic unless she stops the video. “We’re sitting in an area out here in the very southwest corner of Colorado where it’s very isolated. We don’t have that infrastructure … Some places (have) absolutely nothing.”

The pending measure sets aside $35 million from the federal American Rescue Plan for a new Digital Inclusion Grant Program, which reserves $20 million for the two Ute tribes to pay for infrastructure. Another $15 million is for telehealth services available to providers statewide.

An additional $35 million was allocated for grants for private internet services while $5 million is for local governments to offset the cost of building broadband infrastructure.

House Bill 1109, which also awaits Polis’ signature, moves the board that vets grant requests for last-mile projects from local ISPs to the Office of Information Technology, where the Colorado Broadband Office is. The bill also directs the board to focus on grants that help the most “critically unserved” areas.

In this time exposure taken from Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier in Cocoa Beach, Fla., a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. The rocket is carrying the 16th batch of Starlink communications satellites. (Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)
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