Colorado's rural broadband infrastructure bill clears Senate, on to House

Gardner, bipartisan U.S. senators unveil bill too

DENVER – The Colorado Senate on Wednesday morning passed its large bipartisan rural broadband bill on to the House.

The measure would speed up construction on infrastructure for broadband internet services in rural areas by reallocating money from a state fund that has historically been used to fund telephone services in the same areas.

It would also change the state’s definition of a broadband network to define it as a internet service with downstream speeds of at least 10 megabits per second (up from 4) for upload speeds and redefine the areas that are constituted as “unserved” areas. The bill’s language also allows for “speeds at least equal to the FCC’s definition” of broadband, which the feds could change.

The prime sponsors of the measure, Senate Bill 2, are two Senate Republicans – Don Coram of Montrose and Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling – and the top two Democrats in Colorado’s House, Speaker Crisanta Duran and Majority Leader KC Becker.

The bill aims to expand services readily available to Coloradans living in urban areas to people living in the state’s rural areas, where proponents argue they need better internet service to keep up with business, agriculture, health care and education developments.

If passed in its current state, the fund that currently subsidizes telephone bills and infrastructure in rural Colorado would have 60 percent of its money redirected to the companies that will get the rural broadband development grants starting in 2019.

That percentage would then increase each year until it is depleted entirely. Money for the fund is currently paid out by every state resident on their phone bills.

“With Senate Bill-2, the State will put its money where its mouth is, so to speak, and take action for rural Colorado. This isn’t about streaming Netflix or browsing Facebook, it’s about creating jobs, saving lives, and giving our students opportunities to learn,” Sonnenberg said in a statement Thursday.

In his State of the State speech last month, Gov. John Hickenlooper called for 100 percent of rural Colorado to have broadband available by 2020 and to have them in line with FCC national guidance.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month calling for his administration to use “all viable tools to accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable, reliable, modern high-speed broadband connectivity in rural America.”

But some communications companies are pushing back against the bill, including CenturyLink, the state’s largest rural phone provider, which says it worries that it might have to hike prices in the rural areas.

There is also worry among some lawmakers that with the transfer of the phone subsidies to broadband subsidies, people’s phone bills might go up.

An fiscal impact note on the measure says that local governments that already provide internet service for their citizens, like Longmont, “may see an increase in revenue and workload if they receive new grant funding,” and that local governments that don’t act as service providers wouldn’t be eligible for new grant money.

The funds are all awarded and administered by the state’s broadband deployment board.

Hickenlooper has already signed a bill this session that will allow Colorado to apply for federal grants for broadband infrastructure, and there is a bicameral bill also making its way through the Senate – Senate Bill 104 – which would require the state’s broadband deployment board to ask for a waiver from the FCC for rules that prohibit states or local governments from applying for earmarked broadband money.

Also Wednesday, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., unveiled new bipartisan legislation along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Steve Daines, R-Mt., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would allow states to install broadband infrastructure any time that a federal transportation infrastructure project is undertaken.

The idea, known as “dig once,” is aimed at mitigating costs by pairing the road construction with the broadband infrastructure construction. The senators estimate that doing the two sorts of projects separately costs 10 times as much as doing them at the same time.

“This bill would make federal construction projects more efficient by encouraging simultaneous construction of transportation and broadband infrastructure. In addition, the bill would build on my efforts to encourage faster deployment of broadband infrastructure on federal lands,” Gardner said in a statement. “Continued rural economic development depends on expanded broadband internet access, and I’m proud to support this effort to ensure that expansion happens."

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