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Will a flood of federal money finally fix broadband in Southwest Colorado?

Experts say it helps, but a local effort and new ideas are needed
A utility worker installs fiber-optic cable on a utility pole near Belfair, Washington. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press file)

Broadband access lags in several Southwest Colorado communities, but increased federal funding could help bridge the gaps.

Signed into law just a few weeks ago, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $65 billion of broadband funding. The bill draws from Sen. Michael Bennet’s BRIDGE Act, introduced in June 2020, which proposed funding to deploy affordable broadband in underserved areas.

“We are on the cusp of making the largest ever investment in affordable, high-speed broadband in U.S. history, and Colorado led the way,” Bennet wrote in a news release.

The money will be divided to each state, but the amount is based on which ones need it the most. Dan Harms, vice president of Grid Solutions at La Plata Electric Association, said Colorado will likely receive close to $1 billion.

“I think we are seeing a historical opportunity that may not come around again,” Harms said. “There’s so much funding. There’s always been funding toward broadband, but the infrastructure bill put an exclamation point right in the middle of it.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper applauded the funding, and recently introduced his own bill to improve broadband access. The Reforming Broadband Connectivity Act seeks to expand access to broadband by strengthening the funding mechanisms for the Universal Service Fund, which provides money for the expansion of broadband to low-income households and high-cost areas, including some rural communities.

The pointed attention to improving broadband in rural areas supports Southwest Colorado counties’ initiatives in bridging the gaps of where broadband is lacking or not available. Ninety-three percent of Colorado’s rural communities have sufficient connectivity, an increase from 91% in April 2021. But during the pandemic, with people forced to work from home and meet online for school, slow internet still caused issues.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as an always-on, high-speed internet connection with minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload.

Guinn Unger previously served on the LPEA Board of Directors, and in February created a petition urging LPEA to take the lead on creating broadband internet for its members. Currently, LPEA partners with private companies that provide broadband internet to households, but it does not have its own broadband service.

Unger said until LPEA launches its own broadband service, as Delta-Montrose Electric Association did, federal funding won’t have as great of an effect.

He points to the problem of the “middle mile,” the segment of a network that links major carriers to local networks, as needing to be solved before the greater problem of the “last mile,” the final step that connects services to individual households or other buildings, can be tackled.

“For the average person, particularly in a rural area, the infrastructure is not there to bring the broadband to a single business or an individual’s house at a reasonable price,” Unger said. “To me, the core problem is that last mile. The reason that it’s not there is because it’s very expensive.”

Harms said LPEA has been working behind the scenes for the past two years to lay the foundation for the interstate broadband system. He said the increased funding and grants will allow LPEA to partner with more companies interested in branching out to connect that last mile to households.

The state has already provided $80 million in grants to internet companies and local governments over the years to connect internet to customers.

“There’s a lot of capital, a lot of money, involved in getting it,” Harms said about LPEA’s decision not to launch its own broadband service. “We did evaluate what it would take for LPEA to do that, and we didn’t feel that it was an economically responsible thing to do with our members’ money.”

Unger hopes the size of the effort will increase and that the money, which is also being allocated from the American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021, will allow states and private companies to be innovative in their efforts.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but the amount of money it would actually take to bring broadband to rural areas is easily in the trillions of dollars,” he said. “There needs to be creativity brought to this problem, that way you’re adding money to the solution.”

Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a senior graduating in December 2021 at American University in Washington, D.C.

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