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Colorado will get at least $100 million, possibly $1 billion, from infrastructure bill to end digital divide

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John McEvoy
/
Special to the Colorado Sun
Cell phone and rural broadband towers in Center, Saguache County, Colorado with the Sangre de Cristos in distance. January 22, 2021.

This story was originally published in the Colorado Sun.

Colorado’s efforts to end its rural digital divide could finally happen with the $1 trillion U.S. infrastructure bill, currently awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature.

At least $100 million for broadband infrastructure will end up in Colorado, but it could be much more, said Tony Neal-Graves, chief information officer and executive director of the Colorado Office of Information Technology.

“When we go through it and try to estimate how much money could potentially flow to the state of Colorado, directly or indirectly depending on the type of grant program it is, it could be north of a billion dollars,” Neal-Graves said.

Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act this week. In it, $65 billion has been set aside to pay for the cost to extend broadband service to those who still don’t have it in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and U.S. territories.

Every state will get $100 million, which Neal-Graves likened to a block grant for the state to fund capital projects. But getting a piece of the remaining $60 billion would require states to create a five-year action plan to take advantage of all that is available. There’s also money to address digital-equity issues for lower-income and rural users and others.

After the bill becomes law, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce, has six months to create the program and rules on how the money would be doled out to the states.

But right now, how the money will get to the companies and communities that need it most is unclear, said Jon Stavney, executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. The organization completed a 481-mile fiber internet line called Project Thor last year to improve broadband west of Idaho Springs because existing service was inadequate. It received some state funding from the Department of Local Affairs.

“Another thing to watch for is most of the other big-ticket infrastructure has well-worn processes for connecting projects to dollars,” Stavney said in an email. “But, unlike, say funding of roads or transit, funding for broadband, especially public broadband projects, is less defined.”

Colorado is indirectly working on a plan for the infrastructure money — which must be spent by 2026. The state already has $75 million that was provided by the state legislature this year for broadband from the local fiscal recovery fund. Another $170 million for broadband services was allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act. Colorado’s broadband advisory board is working on what that ARPA grant program will look like and is accepting feedback by Nov. 15 (take the survey here) or offering public comment at its meetings.

“We’re focused on those two buckets of money right now,” Neal-Graves said. “We’re trying to make sure we put plans in place to spend it and then, as we learn more about the infrastructure bill, we’ll be smarter about (deploying) it.”

Digital divide not just impacting rural areas

With 93% of Colorado’s rural communities now covered by high-speed internet — an increase from 91% in April — other digital divide issues have emerged, according to the Colorado Broadband Office. The minimum federal speeds of 25 megabits down and three up may not be fast enough, especially for a family of remote learners or workers. There’s also the cost of service, which can create access issues for the urban poor who must opt between paying for internet or food.

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Construction workers installing Project Thor fiber on Interstate 70 in Silverthorne. Project Thor is a 481-mile internet network built by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. The project was completed in April 2020 for about $2.6 million.

The infrastructure bill, which is based off of Sen. Michael Bennet’s proposed BRIDGE Act, addresses a lot of those broadband affordability and “digital discrimination” issues in a way that’s never been tackled before, according to digital inclusion advocates. The bill includes help for older individuals, the incarcerated, racial minorities or people with disabilities, language barriers or with low levels of literacy.

There’s $2.75 billion set aside for a digital equity program to “ensure that all individuals have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States,” according to the bill.

“This is the most significant investment in broadband that we have seen,” Anna Read, senior officer of the Broadband Access Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said during a panel discussion Wednesday on the role states play in the funding rollout. The event, hosted by watchdog group Common Cause, also touched on future proofing infrastructure and making sustainable programs.

“But there’s still a lot of decisions to be made about how that money is spent that will have an impact on how far it goes towards closing the digital divide,” she said.

Other elements of the infrastructure bill could provide Colorado with even more money. It sets aside $14.2 billion to extend the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, to provide up to $30 a month for low-income families to spend on broadband service. In Colorado, eligible residents have been slow to apply, but increased awareness of the EBB program in the past month attracted 23.4% more users and 77,783 households were participating as of Nov. 7, according to Federal Communications Commission data.

Another $2 billion would go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for additional rounds of the ReConnect grant, which is benefiting rural farming Colorado communities Moffat, Eagle and Grand counties.

“When I total up all of the buckets of money that are available to us now,” Neal-Graves said, “I would like to believe that we have enough money to close the gap. The challenge is, as you might imagine, the closer and closer you get to 100%, the harder and harder it gets because the areas that you’re trying to serve and provide services to become incredibly expensive.”

State grants have helped expand broadband

Colorado has provided about $80 million in grants to “last-mile” internet companies and local governments for years to offset the cost of building broadband in a community.

The Colorado Broadband Fund, which takes applications twice a year, has awarded $46 million in grants to 55 companies. The projects helped 25,500 rural households get access to broadband service.

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One 2017 awardee was Ciello in Monte Vista, which is part of the San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative. Back in 2017, it received $700,402 to help build out a fiber-based service in Mineral and Hinsdale counties along Colorado 149. The project now offers service to 278 home and 20 business addresses.

Monroe Johnson, Ciello’s chief technology officer, said the money helped finance gigabit internet to those rural households, which is 40 times faster than typical FCC requirement of 25 mbps. But it also is doing much more than just offering fast internet.

“One of the things that always happens with a project like this is the power infrastructure benefits as well. We go in there and do a significant amount of work, we change out a lot of (utility) polls and different things,” Johnson said. “In our case, this money was extremely well spent. It benefited the power infrastructure and of course brought state-of-the art broadband to all these people.”

Johnson said that Ciello plans to aggressively apply for all available state grants, thanks to the new money. Without assistance, it’s tough for a private company to make financial sense of some of these faraway projects. He points to a community called the South Lazy U in the mountains above Creede.

“They actually have a youth camp there. An area like that desperately needs good solid internet even just from the standpoint of safety and security,” he said. “But some of those locations, to even make a business case to build them out would be nearly impossible. That’s where even matching money or grants like this become really important.”

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