WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senators, including Cory Gardner, introduced a bill that would expand broadband in rural areas where the internet access is either slow or inaccessible.
Gardner, R-Colo., joined Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as sponsors of the “Streamlining and Investing in Broadband Infrastructure Act,” which cuts regulation for companies and local governments trying to expand broadband in rural areas.
The bill requires broadband infrastructure technology be included in federal transportation projects in rural areas, such as the construction of new highways and lane additions. It requires that when broadband technology is put in place it can accommodate multiple broadband providers so more people have access.
“Access to broadband is access to the modern economy,” Gardner said in a joint news release. “This bill would make federal construction projects more efficient by encouraging simultaneous construction of transportation and broadband infrastructure.”
The bill pushes broadband policy known as “dig once,” in which construction workers lay fiber broadband conduits alongside road repairs, avoiding the need to dig up a road a second time.
Coordinating the expansion of broadband conduits on federal transportation projects would reduce the cost of laying cable and conduits by 90 percent because a second excavation wouldn’t be required, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
A similar program is in place with the Colorado Department of Transportation on state transportation projects in Southwest Colorado, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments. The challenge with that setup, she said, is expanding broadband access along state highways that cross into another state.
“In practice, if we just work with CDOT to put infrastructure along highways in Colorado that doesn’t necessarily solve an issue when it crosses into another state,” she said.
The bill also includes language encouraging the expansion of broadband on federal lands, an issue Gardner has supported. This legislation helps companies, states and local governments by instructing federal agencies to establish a standard fee for these groups to build or maintain broadband infrastructure on the federal agency’s property.
In Colorado, many people in rural areas either have insufficient access or no access to broadband.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, sufficient broadband access is minimum download speed of 25 megabytes per second and minimum upload speeds of 3 mbps. The FCC’s 2016 broadband report showed 39 percent of rural Americans lacked access to sufficient Internet speeds.
Another FCC report shows that 39 percent of the La Plata County population isn’t served by a provider that offers sufficient broadband access. In Montezuma County, 37 percent of the population doesn’t have sufficient internet access.
Lack of access to sufficient broadband threatens the economic strength of La Plata County, with more than 2,300 home-based workers, according to the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
“(The effect) is not just for businesses,” Gillow-Wiles said. “You’ve got education and you’ve got health care.”
Federal funding in broadband expansion is imperative to establishing a rural broadband network that can support sufficient broadband speeds and access, Gillow-Wiles said.
“Across the board there is very little financial support for local government to develop broadband on their own,” Gillow-Wiles said. “Both the federal and state support goes toward businesses.”
Daines, Gardner and Klobuchar introduced a similar bill in 2015. It never received a vote. The continuous stalling of federal broadband expansion legislation hampers the ability of rural development groups like the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments to expand access because they can’t rely on local governments.
“Funding is hard to come by to develop (broadband) infrastructure if you’re a state or local government,” Gillow-Wiles said.
Andrew Eversden is an intern with The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.