Broadband for…some, if you’re lucky!

If you lived in an “average area” of the United States in 2011, you would have been thrilled to get broadband download speeds measuring 10Mbsp.  According to the FCC in 2011, that was the average broadband speed in the US.  By 2014, the average increased to 31Mbps.  Four years later in 2018, the FCC defines the minimum speed for broadband at 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up.

And then there is SB 18-002 – legislation that is meant to simply repurpose a large portion of the money collected on your phone bill to provide landline statewide and instead use it support private investment in modern broadband in rural Colorado. The sponsors are Sens. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling; and Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder. There is no doubt about their resolve to crack the grip CenturyLink has had on the high cost support mechanism (HCSM) to make that money available for broadband. Unfortunately – with so many telecom lobbyists circling in chummed waters – the bill includes more than just HCSM money for broadband.

To be fair, the competition test and the process for determining an unserved area in current statute – thanks to the 2014 deregulation legislation that was supposed to open the floodgates to broadband deployment by the private sector – are much improved in SB 2. In addition, the bill came out of the Senate with a more immediate and more significant transfer of HCSM revenue for rural broadband grants

Now for the “not so good part.” Various elements of the telecom industry have stated they want to build modern broadband as soon as possible in a fair process that will help rural Colorado inch closer to parity with urban areas of the state. Inexplicably, an industry-backed amendment uncouples the statutory definition of “broadband network” with the FCC minimum speeds of 25Mbps down/3Mpbs up.

The result is that the Broadband Deployment Board may be required to give grants for broadband network deployment at speeds that are on par with the 2011 average speed. CML agrees with Colorado Counties, Inc. that this change is “effectively moving the state backwards with respect to establishing adequate service.”

As SB 18-002 moves through the House, the question will be whether or not the goal is to assist the private sector in building sustainable rural broadband networks that are forward-looking or just to subsidize rollout of networks reflecting the best that 2011 has to offer in 2018 and beyond. As local governments and private providers know all too well, the challenges that face rural Colorado make implementation of fast, reliable broadband more challenging than in urbanized areas.

Some have criticized the goal of 25Mbps as building a “Cadillac” network – easy to say when most of the folks saying that have 250Mbps or faster from their Denver Metro area providers. Perhaps a better comparison is 10Mbps as a 1976 Ford Pinto…when maybe folks should at least get a 25 Mbps 2014 Chevy Cruze.

No matter what, SB 2 needs to pass to ensure that HCSM revenue is available to private providers to get Broadband Deployment Board grants to bring better broadband to unserved areas of Colorado. Colorado communities will be watching very closely to see if the all the stated good intentions turn into fiber in the ground and fast, modern broadband for all.

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Broad(band) Disappointment

Promises made

In the speeches made by legislative leadership in the first days of the session, as well as the State of the State Address given by Gov. John Hickenlooper, there was unbridled support and enthusiasm for expansion of broadband service in rural areas of the state. Yet, given all the hoopla and all the bipartisan support for doing something, the General Assembly will adjourn in 2016 without passage of meaningful legislation to address the significant shortfalls in broadband availability and speeds throughout Colorado.

fiber

There is no more direct evidence of the reality of broadband gaps in rural Colorado than the overwhelming approval by voters 45 municipalities and 21 counties that voted to exempt themselves from statutory prohibitions on provision of broadband services. Each vote is a referendum on the lack of availability and quality of broadband service. Citizens have expressed, in no uncertain terms, that the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide broadband infrastructure and service that allows schools and businesses to compete in the global economy. All of these communities – and all of the people within them – have a link to Colorado’s economy, educational system, and health care system.  Each one of them has the right to be as connected to the world as their counterparts in the larger cities along the Front Range.

The only answer from the General Assembly to this crisis is SB 16-067. The legislation does nothing to tackle substandard broadband service, but it does suggest that the private sector companies failing to provide better service might consider it if rural counties and municipalities give them a tax break on their business personal property. This – and apparently nothing else – is the barrier to private sector deployment of infrastructure and service.

We don’t agree.

Besides violating constitutional requirements for uniform taxation on all real and personal property, the bill does not do anything to improve service. The bill does not even require the company that would get the tax break to put new or improved infrastructure in the jurisdiction(s) asked to give the tax break. The legislation represents another missed opportunity.

Beyond the 2016 legislative session

Local governments working directly with interested citizens and the private sector will be the most promising avenue for providing fast, available broadband to all corners of Colorado. The General Assembly, by comparison, continues to be a vessel of disappointing rhetoric.

Municipalities and counties will continue to tackle this issue collaboratively and on the local level, along with a strong partner in the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). DOLA has been a critical element in local governments’ development of plans to build broadband infrastructure. Local governments largely plan to make the investment in infrastructure the private sector does not want to make, and then open it to private sector to offer high speed broadband to schools, businesses, and private citizens. The public/private partnerships (P3’s) are often the best model for public investment that benefits the private sector and those that subscribe to their services.

But meaningful assistance via the General Assembly?  Maybe in 2017.