Five years after starting its quest for citywide broadband internet, Cortez is looking to private companies for help and is receiving unclear signals from the federal government.
Broadband access has been a problem across rural America for years, and it affects how towns operate.
“How not having broadband impacts communities and citizens is much wider ranging than most people think,” said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of Southwest Colorado Council of Governments. “We think of broadband like, ‘Oh, I want to do email, I want to watch Netflix,’ things like that. ... But it is also access to education, it is access to workforce, it is access to the justice system in a lot of ways.”
Without fast internet access, economic development might stall.
“Everything you think of, some aspect of it is based in connectivity,” Gillow-Wiles said.
Cortez City Manager John Dougherty compared internet expansion to rural development of electricity, which was built on federal loans provided by the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.
“It’s so important for us in terms of economic development,” Dougherty said. “And that’s what we’re shooting for, to come into the 21st century and get to the point of there’s no excuse why you could not set up a business here that is primarily based on the internet, but right now you can’t do it. We want to see in the near future, come here, you can get to anywhere you want to in the world from right here in Cortez.”
Gillow-Wiles works with local governments to solve regional problems such as the expansion of reliable broadband.
She said towns face three major obstacles that inhibit internet expansion: low population density, distance between communities and topography, especially mountains. The obstacles make fiber projects costly for towns and companies, she said, because low population cannot produce a return on investment or incentive to become a sole internet service provider.
Gillow-Wiles helped Cortez officials bring in state funding matched by local funding. The city used its funds for the fiber-optic project, which expanded on existing infrastructure because Colorado Senate Bill 152 prohibits local governments from participating in public-private partnerships to purchase connectivity. In Cortez, for example, the City Council and a private company might partner on a broadband expansion project,
Cortez opted out of SB 152, like other towns in Southwest Colorado, because it had started its broadband expansion before the bill was passed in 2005. According to the Colorado Wireless Association’s website, 29 counties and 66 municipalities had voted to opt out of the restrictions by January 2017, yet more than half did not have access to up to $20 million in aid meant for broadband expansion from the Department of Local Affairs because of the bill.
On Wednesday, Cortez took a step forward in creating a private-public partnership. The city released a request for proposals, seeking a private company to partner with the city on financing, designing, installing, operating and maintaining the fiber network, or any combination of those responsibilities. General Services Director Rick Smith said the private company could help the city install the fiber network faster and cheaper, possibly without the need for a sales tax.
The decision as a city survey found that an overwhelming amount of Cortez residents supported a sales tax to finance the fiber-optic installation program, which was draining hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from city funds. Survey results revealed that 64 percent of respondents said they would support a temporary sales tax, and 18 percent would support a tax if it meant lower prices and better service.
“We got to the point, in my viewing, that it’s not paying back its debt ... and we have not done a good job of marketing the broadband around the communities where it is available,” Dougherty said.
Gillow-Wiles said subsidies are available to private companies, such as CenturyLink, to expand broadband options into rural areas.
Smith said CenturyLink received $500 million in subsidies between 2006 and 2016 in Colorado, but the company is an ISP in mostly urban areas.
“Our belief is that just because we live in rural areas doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have telecommunication,” Smith said.
Gillow-Wiles said CenturyLink’s market dominance doesn’t allow for innovation because it excludes competition from local providers that might know the community and its needs better.
In Washington, D.C., Colorado’s congressional delegation has moved to bring fast internet to Southwest Colorado. But local officials hope for more simplified solutions and assistance.
Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, who has echoed sentiment that broadband is becoming a necessity, said he is working on several bills for his fourth term to help fund broadband expansion to rural areas.
Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, have worked to provide the federal funding that Gillow-Wiles mentioned. In March, Bennet launched Connect Colorado, an initiative to help connect every Colorado community to high-speed internet through competitively awarded federal grants, after helping to secure $600 million in funding in the March spending bill.
“High-speed, reliable, affordable broadband is essential for our communities to thrive in the 21st century economy,” Bennet said in a news release. “Colorado’s local leaders, especially in rural areas, have been at the forefront of innovative approaches to deliver that caliber of service to their neighbors. We must do everything we can to build on their work, with the goal of delivering high-quality broadband to every community across Colorado.”
Bennet also secured funding for high-speed, fiber-optic service to the Silverton School in 2015.
Gardner introduced the Advancing Innovation and Reinvigorating Widespread Access to Viable Electromagnetic Spectrum Act, or Airwaves Act, in August 2017 to direct revenue from the sale of spectrum by the FCC toward rural broadband expansion. The FCC auctions broadband for tens of billions of dollars to private companies – 10 percent of which would be reserved for expansion projects like the fiber-optic project in Cortez.
Gardner’s bill is waiting for a vote in the next Congress.
However, Gillow-Wiles said it’s not enough. She said the multifaceted need of internet requires a multifaceted solution including public-private partnerships, public-private subsidies outside of incumbent companies like CenturyLink, simplified government regulations and application processes, and access to established ISPs’ maps and grid.
“We give a lot of money to really big companies that don’t necessarily know what the challenges on the ground are or are not invested in the communities,” Gillow-Wiles said. “It’s not that hard, we just need more infrastructure to bring access to people’s residences and businesses. The hard part is the cost and the willpower.”
Dougherty and Smith also think legislation should provide funding for broadband expansion, as it did for electricity.
“If the federal government would step up and say, ‘We have subsidies for providers,’ and not just give them to the cable providers who already don’t do the service anyway but they’re taking the money, we’d all be better off,” Dougherty said.
Smith made an analogy between the infrastructure for road development and broadband expansion to show how poorly the system is set up in Colorado.
“If we treated roads like we did telecommunications, any road going out of Denver would be a gravel road,” Smith said.
Emily Martin is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.