Full high-speed Internet coverage in rural Colorado is still an aspiration rather than a reality, but the push for accessible broadband continues with stakeholders working toward serving more households.
(TNS) — “Universal service” has been a cornerstone of American communications policy since the Communications Act of 1934. It’s the principle that all people, whether they’re in the middle of a city or on a ranch 20 miles off the interstate, should have access to efficient, fairly priced communications services.
It was one of the ideas driving Colorado’s beleaguered, $100.6 million EAGLE-Net program that tried — and failed — to bring high-speed internet to every school district in the state.
When it comes to being able to connect to high-speed internet in rural Colorado, “universal service” is still an aspiration, not a reality.
“We get the internet to bring up my email and stuff like that. It takes forever,” Denise Beanland said of the quality of her home internet connection this month. “I can’t upload pictures. You can’t really watch a movie without it stopping several times. It’s just very, very slow.”
Beanland, 64, lives about a quarter mile outside Dove Creek, a town of fewer than 750 people a few miles from the Utah border in the southwest part of the state. the town manager, describes high-speed internet service in the Western Slope community as “pretty much nonexistent.”
For now, most of the homes in Dove Creek and surrounding Dolores County are a part of the 13% of rural households in Colorado state officials consider unserved by broadband internet. As defined by the Federal Communications Commission, broadband is internet service that can deliver download speeds of at least 25 mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 mbps.
“Broadband has become an essential service, just as electricity used to be a century ago,” Eun-A Park, an associate professor at Western Colorado University in Gunnison who studies telecommunications policy, wrote in an email to The Denver Post.
High-speed internet has become a cornerstone of modern business, education and health care, Park said.
“Rural areas need these services too, in fact, more than cities do, since the physical infrastructure (for example, health clinics or high-quality schools) is not available in rural areas,” she wrote.
With upward of 600,000 rural households in the state, an 87% service rate means somewhere in the range of 80,000 to 90,000 households are living with subpar internet, according to state officials’ estimates.
It’s a significant step up from a few years ago. In May 2017, just 73% of rural households had broadband, according to state figures. Colorado has a long way to go to reach its next goal: 92% rural access by June 2020.
Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of the state’s broadband office, knows there are plenty of barriers to that goal, starting with collecting reliable information about who has broadband and who doesn’t.
“The challenge that we have with our metric is that we’re reliant on the service providers in the state of Colorado to give us the information,” Neal-Graves said. “They’re not required to. There is no regulation that says they need to tell us who they are serving and list the quality of that broadband that they’re providing.”
Neal-Graves has held leadership positions with companies such as AT&T, Intel and Bell Laboratories. He was named to his post in the broadband office in March 2017, tasked with steering the state’s efforts to expand access.
As demonstrated by the data mapping issue, his hands are tied by how broadband services are regulated in this country.
“There is a big debate that I think needs to go on nationally at the federal level of whether or not you want to regulate broadband access as being a utility,” he said. “Because that’s how we got phone service to everybody. It was regulated. This isn’t.”
With that in mind, the main role the broadband office plays is working with service providers in rural areas. Neal-Graves and his team encourage providers to apply for federal grants, provide them with data and write letters of support to back their funding requests.
It’s a strategy that acknowledges the state’s internal efforts alone won’t be able to bridge the gap between 87% and 100% service in rural areas. The Department of Local Affairs’ has doled out $25 million in “middle mile” infrastructure grants since 2010, according to the broadband office. The Department of Regulatory Agencies’ “last mile” grants that help bring service directly to customers have helped 17,000 households get connected since 2016. But big federal support and major private sector investment is needed to traverse Colorado’s remaining vast distances.
“With all the money that the state has tried to put into this problem, it’s not enough. It’s not going to be enough,” Neal-Graves said. “We’ve estimated that it is probably going to be somewhere north of $300 million to completely get to 100%.”
The state draws some of its broadband support funding from what’s called the “high-cost support mechanism,” a fee assessed on telecom providers in the state (and passed on to consumers on their bills). After years of tangling with reform, the fee — once dedicated solely to improving the reach of phone service — is slowly being redirected toward broadband funding. Beginning in 2019, it was expected to gin up $115 million over five years for projects.
That pales in comparison with the size of its federal counterpart, the Federal Communications Commission-run Universal Service Fund. Also fed by fees that pop up on Americans’ phone bills, the pool is billions of dollars deep and the FCC has used it to fund a variety of programs aimed at improving American internet access.
Its latest effort is called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. It’s a $20.4 billion renewal and expansion of the agency’s existing Connect America Fund program, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said.
The FCC is writing rules for the program now, but the initial plan is to dole out the money via two rounds of reverse auctions where providers bid on funding: $16 billion in the first wave and the remaining $4 billion plus later. The first grants will likely be awarded in 2021.
There’s a big problem, according to critics, and it’s one the FCC freely admits: The agency’s existing service mapping data is terrible. The problem, Neal-Graves said, is that the agency measures service by the census block. If even one building gets broadband, the FCC classifies an entire block as served. In Colorado, where census blocks can be hundreds of square miles, it’s too broad to be accurate and leaves households out in the cold.
There have been calls by some for the FCC to hang onto the money until better mapping data — something the agency is pursuing now — becomes available. So far, those calls aren’t working.
“There is a desire not to wait and withhold support for areas that we know are entirely unserved,” Wigfield said. Let’s “move forward on areas we know lack service and then begin using this better data as we have it.”
Frazier and the people he serves in Dove Creek don’t need to wait for the FCC.
A Utah-based provider, Emery Telcom, has been approved for a $2.7 federal grant to extend its fiber optic network 25 miles across the state line to bring the town internet capable of gigabit-per-second speeds. Emery is expected to serve more than 500 households, 20 farms and ranches, 15 businesses, according to a news release.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ponied up that grant. The agency received $600 million from Congress in March 2018 to put toward broadband efforts under its “ReConnect” program.
Emery chief operations officer Jared Anderson said the Dove Creek project will cost $3.6 million, with his company pitching in the final $900,000 and change. Emery, which got its start as a nonprofit phone service cooperative because Bell Telephone Co. wouldn’t serve the rural Utah in the 1950s, has five years to complete the Dove Creek project under the terms of its grant, Anderson said.
The incoming network is critical the small town’s economy, Frazier believes. He said the town has struggled to hang on to residents because quality internet service is hard to come by, making it challenging to run a business that requires any sort of online data filing. As he puts it, “You’ve gotta make money to eat, folks.”
Park, the Western Colorado University communications professor, said numerous studies, including some she has worked on, show that areas with better broadband generate more jobs and more startup companies. The impact of recessions is also less severe in those places.
Dolores County has the worst broadband access in the state, according to BroadbandNow.com, a consumer advocacy site. Just 12.9% of people there get it.
“It’s going to be a big help,” Frazier said of the incoming fiber. “It helps our business stay here and also attract new businesses.”
The Dove Creek project does two things that Neal-Graves likes: It creates service provider choice in an underserved area and it brings in physical fiber, the most reliable broadband delivery method.
But it also highlights the federal government’s jigsaw-puzzle approach to rural broadband. The courthouse and school in Dove Creek already had fiber access from a previous federal subsidy, Frazier said. For homes and business to get it though, a Utah company had to apply for a USDA grant and get letters of support from the town and state officials.
“One of the things we are trying to encourage the federal government to think about is can you have a more holistic approach to this,” Neal-Graves said.
When asked why the FCC doesn’t coordinate its efforts with the USDA, Wigfield said, “that probably would be a question more for Congress.”
At least one rural Colorado broadband provider is singing the praises of the FCC’s recently rolled out Alternative Connect America Cost Model. It’s a Universal Service Fund-fed mechanism for supporting providers in areas where service is too costly to provide without help.
Terry Hendrickson, the CEO and general manager of the Wiggins Telephone Association, said the predictable, model-based funding his company will receive from the FCC over the next 10 years will put it in a great position to serve more people on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. A prior, variable, year-to-year model that was offered starting in 2016 had the company worried it might not be able to pay its debts and serve its customers if it has accepted.
In a demonstration of just how little competition there is outside of the state’s urban areas, Wiggins Telephone is the sixth largest broadband provider in the state, according to an analysis by media research group Kagan earlier this year. It serves around 7,100 customers. Comcast, the state’s biggest provider, serves 1.15 million.
Through the augmented, and optional, FCC subsidy program the company, which provides high-speed internet under the trade name Blue Lightning, will receive $29.4 million over a decade. In return, the FCC is requiring the company to bring broadband service to 2,028 new locations; most in Weld and Morgan counties.
“We did a lot of research where we stood on these buildout obligations, and we’re in great shape,” Hendrickson said. “We’re in an area that’s experienced a lot of residential growth. Oil and gas has been very good for us.”
All told, Wiggins Telephone, has about 1,100 miles of fiber, Hendrickson said. Its crews were burying more along a highway north of Wiggins this month. The network, first built in 2008, was the result of an $18.3 million loan from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service.
Even in the same region of the state there are haves and have-nots when it comes to broadband. State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg operates a ranch about 7 miles outside Sterling, a high plains town about an hour drive from Wiggins. If he has a piece of equipment break down and needs to access an online manual, Sonnenberg’s only hope on the ranch is internet service beamed from towers operated by his cellphone service provider, Viaero Wireless.
“It’s the only place I can get it,” he said, noting Viaero provides internet in areas including his corner of the state, western Nebraska and the San Luis Valley, sparsely populated places “no one else wanted.”
Sonnenberg co-sponsored the 2018 bill that redirects high-cost support mechanism money to broadband buildout. So far, he said, the state is only dealing with low-hanging fruit. Projects will only get more expensive as the spaces between customers get larger.
“It’s the cost. It’s absolutely the cost,” he said of the barriers to 100% access. “When you put in fiber or put in a line you distribute that cost between so many customers. When you get to rural areas of the state that have very small populations, the cost is divided across a fewer number. That’s quite frankly why most companies don’t serve those areas now.”
Sonnenberg’s home internet service isn’t broadband speed by federal definition, but he said he can live with it. The increasing pace of technological advancement should make future broadband projects cheaper, he said, but lightning-fast service won’t just appear overnight.
“I think this is one of those things that just takes time,” he said. “We’re going to have to be patient a little bit and allow it to happen.”
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