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Colorado Eyeing ‘No Access’ Broadband Map

Legislation would direct the state’s Public Utilities Commission and Office of Information Technology to identify areas of Colorado without access to high-speed Internet.

Colorado residents and businesses frustrated by a lack of broadband connectivity in the state's rural areas may have some hope on the horizon.

A bill is circulating in the Colorado General Assembly that would require the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Office of Information Technology (OIT) to identify and map communities that don’t have sufficient build-out of broadband networks. The mapping would have to be done by Jan. 1, 2013.

Colorado Senate Bill 12-129, sponsored by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, also would require development of a strategy to increase broadband access to those areas. The work done to uncover communities with limited or no access to high-speed Internet will be done using existing PUC and OIT broadband data and mapping information.

Last year the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) launched a National Broadband Map, but its accuracy has been questioned. SB 12-129 would give a Colorado-specific look at the areas in the state without broadband coverage.

Schwartz said the intent of the Rural Broadband Jobs Act is to help Colorado improve access to broadband so that businesses throughout the state have opportunities to be competitive and successful.

“I am looking for a definitive assessment of underserved and unserved areas in our state that lack broadband access,” Schwartz said in an interview with Government Technology. After those areas are defined and as funding becomes available, she’d like the state to invest in the infrastructure needed to bring broadband to those underserved locations.

Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI), which represents county interests in the state, supports SB 12-129. Andy Karsian, the organization’s legislative coordinator, said various rural counties have had opportunities to attract employers, but they couldn’t seal the deal -- primarily due to a lack of high-speed connectivity those potential businesses require.

Rural-area economic development and educational opportunities in Colorado are directly tied to broadband access, and are a key reason behind CCI’s endorsement of the bill, Karsian said.

“We’re supportive of the bill because even though we recognize it’s just a mapping exercise for the state, it is one more way for us to emphasize the importance of connecting all these rural areas around the state to broadband,” Karsian said.

In order to develop a strategy to deliver broadband to all areas of Colorado, SB 12-129 also would permit the Public Utilities Commission and Office of Information Technology to form an advisory panel of representatives from broadband providers and local governments.

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic and community development consulting group, called SB 12-129 a “lot better” than what other states are doing.

In an email to Government Technology, Mitchell wrote that his reaction to the bill is a reflection of how poorly most states are dealing with high-speed Internet going from a nicety to a necessity. Mitchell added that while he hopes SB 12-129 leads to good recommendations that embrace non-commercial approaches to broadband delivery, such as government-owned networks, he isn’t holding his breath.

“Unfortunately these advisory panels often end up stacked with representatives from DSL and cable companies that prefer the status quo until they can devise a scheme for the public to funnel more subsidies their way,” Mitchell said. “I hope that will not be the case in Colorado.”

Amendments and Issues

Colorado’s SB 12-129 has been modified slightly since it was introduced. The bill now would require OIT to compile a map of all existing broadband assets owned by Colorado, including fiber, towers, conduit and other high-speed network technology.

According to Jon Gottsegen, Colorado’s state GIS coordinator, that task isn’t as easy as it sounds. Language in SB 12-129 was changed so that, instead of allowing OIT direct access to PUC federal grant funds, the office now has to apply for them. OIT estimates the work could cost up to $100,000 in the first year.

“Currently we don’t have any data on state-owned [broadband] assets,” Gottsegen said. “The $100,000 is an estimate of having an employee to do the work. The problem is we don’t really have a sense of the magnitude of the mapping that is going to be required because we don’t [know] the number of agencies that have these assets and how many they have.”

Additionally, the bill’s scope was narrowed.

The introduced version of the legislation used language that instructed OIT and PUC to “identify areas in Colorado where markets for broadband access are not competitive,” with input from broadband providers. But those terms were changed in an amendment made to the bill in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy.

The bill now reads that OIT will identify “areas in Colorado without broadband access,” in collaboration with PUC and broadband providers.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.