We frequently hear about how operators and telco vendors are tackling the broadband digital divide, but state broadband offices have their own work cut out for them.
Brandy Reitter, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO), sat down with Fierce to discuss what the state’s broadband coverage looks like, local challenges with deployment and progress on the funding front.
Reitter estimates there are about 166,000 households in 360,000 locations across Colorado without access to high-speed broadband. Over half of those households (around 93,000) have cited lack of physical infrastructure as the main obstacle to broadband access.
“When we look at our mapping and all of our data, we know where in the state that is the case,” she said, adding the CBO has identified “significant inaccuracies” with the FCC’s preliminary coverage map. So far, the CBO added 6,000 locations to the FCC’s database and challenged 1,000 locations for broadband availability.
“But we have no way of knowing how many challenges have been submitted by the public yet,” Reitter said. The deadline for submitting challenges to the FCC for inclusion in the second iteration of its coverage map was January 13.
For the CBO’s part, it updates its map twice a year. The state broadband office recently brought on a vendor to create serviceable location level maps. The CBO also purchased crowdsourced Ookla data to better measure broadband performance.
“We think our maps are going to be far superior [to] the FCC maps over time,” Reitter said. “Like many other states, we’re really close to our public…our ISPs and industry, and we know best what’s accurate and what’s not.”
The other 44% (73,000) of those unserved and underserved households flagged affordability and accessibility issues. These individuals “might have access to high-speed internet sitting right outside their home” but they might not know how to use it or they don’t have the devices needed to connect to the internet, Reitter explained.
Another serious issue in Colorado is fiber cuts, especially in more rural areas. When cuts happen, due to construction or some other reason, “it’ll take down an entire community for hours if not days,” she said. As a result, civic services like government, schools, hospitals and businesses can’t run their operations.
One way the state is addressing this problem, Reitter continued, is by allowing local communities to build a second fiber path into their area.
“When internet goes down because of a cut, you can switch the network over to the redundant line going into their communities,” she said. “So now you have two ways in and two ways out, instead of just one.”
Colorado is taking advantage of several different funding programs. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs invests $5 million annually in rural broadband and other broadband projects across the state, said Reitter. To date, it’s invested around $40 million for broadband deployment.
Another state-funded program is the Broadband Deployment Fund, which is managed by Colorado’s Broadband Deployment Board. Reitter pointed out that program is funded through “high-cost support mechanism” fees included on consumer telephone bills.
“Every year through a grant process, the state allocates approximately $12 million to industry to construct last-mile broadband,” she said. “So we’re talking about last-mile fiber-to-the-home or other technologies, because we’re a technology neutral department.”
Both these programs have been in place for several years. Last year, the CBO launched its Advanced Colorado Broadband Grant Program, which encompasses all of the state’s federal broadband funds. It includes money from the American Rescue Plan Act Capital Projects Fund (CPF), the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – specifically the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.
Reitter estimated the total amount of available federal funding to be somewhere between $400 million and $700 million. Colorado received $171 million in CPF funding and has about $75 million allocated in Fiscal Recovery Funds.
Of course, the state doesn’t yet know how much BEAD money it’ll get, as the NTIA expects to issue those funding awards sometime this summer. But the CBO projects Colorado will receive “a minimum of around $400 million,” Reitter said.
“We work really closely with stakeholders, industry, other government agencies, local governments, nonprofits, community anchors to get feedback as well as to help inform them on our grant programs,” she said.
Reitter added the CBO is “really looking at public-private partnerships” to fund community-driven broadband projects.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” she commented. “Some want to be the last mile provider…most don’t, they like the idea of public-private partnerships.”
Reitter highlighted some public-private broadband efforts that have done well over the past couple of years. In smaller markets, these are mainly consortiums who “don’t have the economies of scale to just go off an do a one-off broadband project.”
One example is Project THOR, an open access middle mile fiber network led by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. In southwest Colorado, there’s Region 10, a coalition of electric providers, local government and nonprofits that’s also built middle-mile infrastructure.
But there’s only so much local government can do to help Colorado’s broadband efforts. Senate Bill 152, which was passed back in 2005, prohibits local governments from entering the broadband market, whether it’s their own service or via partnerships.
To get around that legislation, Reitter said communities have to run a referendum to ask voters to opt out of that legislation.
“It requires an election, which is very expensive for communities to do,” she said. Roughly one-third of Colorado’s cities, towns and counties have opted out of SB-152, the remaining two-thirds have not.
“If a community has not opted out, they cannot participate in our program,” Reitter noted. “That doesn’t help with universal coverage and it doesn’t help with providers being able to access funds to help serve these communities.”