Neither is a cure-all for what ails the Western Slope in terms of broadband internet and water, but two bills passed by the Colorado House Tuesday could be an incremental pick-me-up.
The bipartisan House Bill 1099 could possibly start a turf war between bidders who might expand broadband internet into underserved areas of the state and nearby internet providers who are legally allowed to call dibs.
The legislation sponsored by Reps. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, and Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, would grant the right of first refusal to the company that offers the broadband service nearby, as long as they match a would-be competitor’s speed and price.
McLachlan said the bill is supported by Colorado Counties Inc, “particularly the counties in Southwest Colorado.”
“I live in Durango and I know all too well the challenges of delivering high-speed internet to rural Colorado,” she told the House Transportation and Energy Committee last week.
She said “incumbent” providers nearby can step in and block out competition then only “substantially” offer the same service, under current law. But it’s not always substantially enough. She cited the case in Ridgway, where CenturyLink invoked its right of first refusal but instead of using fiber optic lines to homes, as the competitor had offered, CenturyLink instead used the slower DSL. The company received more than $500 million in state and federal grants to extend service to the area.
“It cannot provide the same speeds to homes in the area as fiber,” McLachlan said. “This bill will ensure what happened in Ridgway will not happen to another underserved community in Colorado.”
Competition standards, however, won’t extend rural broadband across the state, a much heavier lift that lawmakers in Denver haven’t been able to manage.
The bill passed the House 49-14 Tuesday.
The lower chamber also gave a 61-2 approval to House Bill 1199 by McLachlan and Catlin to set standards for storage-and-recovery projects which will ensure a steady supply of water during drought and periods of high demand.
The rules would be set by the Department of Natural Resources’ Ground Water Commission for the eight designated groundwater basins in Eastern Colorado, where communities rely primarily on ground water.
If the Eastern slope doesn’t manage its water wisely, Western Slope water is called on to fill the void, Catlin said.
“This is a good bill that allows the state of Colorado to start making rules on how you can store water in existing aquifers and recover the water, so the Eastern Slope, particularly, will be able to have some storage in the basins on the east side of the mountains.”
Both bills have to start over now in the Senate, where they are sponsored by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose.
Another Coram piece of legislation, Senate Bill 2, would move millions of dollars in state grants to rural communities to build the infrastructure of broadband internet. The bill passed the Senate 31-4 last month and is pending in the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. House Speaker Crisanta Duran of Denver and Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder, co-sponsors with Coram, presented a case for the bill to the committee Monday.
“We strongly believe it’s an important piece of legislation that will finally help connect rural Colorado with the rest of the state,” Duran said. “Whether you live in Denver or Durango, Boulder or the Western Slope, broadband service is becoming and increasing larger part of our daily lives.”
Becker said broadband is second only to health care as a concern in the four rural counties in his district.
“If these communities are going to thrive, if they’re going to be successful in the 21st century, they have to have broadband,” she told the committee.