After years of frustration over slow or non-existent broadband service in rural Colorado, the General Assembly is poised to move at the speed of fiber optic to finally connect rural communities, and economic opportunity, to the internet.
In the past week, another measure that would make high-speed broadband service possible for rural schools, homes and businesses passed the House and is on its way to the Senate.
House Bill 1099, according to its proponents, is not only about high-speed internet service. It’s also an assist in rural economic development.
The bill is about something known as the right of first refusal. It works like this: A small telecom provider makes a bid to the state’s broadband deployment fund to provide high-speed service in a rural community. The company wants to put in fiber optic cable, the fastest service currently available.
But another telecom company has been in the area longer – as a phone provider, for example – and has that right of first refusal. That means the company can swoop in and bid to provide that internet service, and take over the grant.
That’s what happened last year in Ridgway, in Ouray County. Elevate, a new telecom provider operated by the local nonprofit Delta-Montrose Electric Association co-op, won a grant to provide high-speed fiber optic service to about 2,000-area residents and businesses. The service would have reached speeds at 1 gigabyte, among the fastest currently available.
But CenturyLink has been operating in the area for years, so the company exercised its right of first refusal and took the broadband grant. And they elected to provide internet service through copper lines. That’s about 10 times slower than fiber optic and can be more expensive to customers.
That’s not fair to the customers or to the business that wanted to provide the better service, according to the bill’s sponsors, Republican Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango.
House Bill 1099 won’t take away that right of first refusal. But it would mandate that the companies exercising that right provide service equal to or better than the original bid and at the same or lower cost.
“These communities are doing everything they can to get into modern world” with small entrepreneurs figuring out how to do it, Catlin told the House Transportation and Energy Committee last month. This is about fair play, he added.
Local telecom in rural communities isn’t only about faster service, according to Virginia Harmon of Elevate. The company is also providing communities with rural economic development. Harmon said that 60 laid-off coal miners have found jobs with contractors putting in fiber optic lines.
If the bill passes, “the next time we get a grant, we can rest assured that if the incumbent provider exercises right of first refusal, our rural friends and families won’t be shortchanged with slow speed and outdated technology,” she said.
The bill drew little opposition in its passage through the transportation committee. The Colorado Telecommunications Association, which represents about two dozen small telecom companies, raised concerns that its members, which serve about 30 percent of the state by geography but only about 30,0000 customers, would not be able to compete with companies offering high-speed service. CenturyLink and Comcast are also opposed but did not testify.
The House approved the measure on a 61-2 vote last week.
The most significant broadband bill of the session, Senate Bill 2, received approval Monday from the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources committee Monday.
The bill, which passed the Senate 31-4, would transfer dollars currently routed to the state’s High Cost Support Mechanism to the broadband deployment fund. The HCSM, which is a surcharge paid by customers for voice service, currently brings in about $35 million per year, and most of those dollars go to CenturyLink as the phone provider of last resort. Under SB 2, 60 percent of that money would go to the broadband fund in 2019, and by 2023 all of those dollars would transfer to that fund.
The bill also mandates that those who want to provide internet service do so at faster speeds than what is currently available. For unserved communities, the speed of service would be at 10 megabits for downloading and 1 megabit up. That’s not terribly fast, and for now is below the standard set by the Federal Communication Commission, which wants to see 25 down and 3 up. But it’s a good start for communities that currently get no service at all or service so slow that only email is possible.
The committee passed the bill 10-1. It now moves to the House.