State’s Rural Broadband Coverage Goal of 92 Percent in Doubt

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Colorado has a goal to bring 92 percent of rural residents and businesses broadband by June, but it’s not going to happen, reported The Colorado Sun. Determining which parts of the state need service is one big challenge.

“There’s no place for us to go to get more accurate information,” said Anthony Neal-Graves, executive director of the Colorado Office of Broadband. “Even the [Federal Communications Commission] admits that the data they have is awful.”

Colorado’s rural communities have only seen a slight increase in access to broadband in the past year, up from 86 percent last June to 87.1 percent. However, even that number is inaccurate. The state surveys internet service providers (ISPs) bi-annually regarding connectivity but doesn’t require them, by law, to comply, so they don’t receive 100 percent participation.  

According to Neal-Graves, the state has awarded nearly $20 million in grants in the past year to local governments and private internet providers to improve service in rural communities. Even the pandemic hasn’t slowed down grants. In March, the Department of Local Affairs awarded $3.1 million to expand a network in two counties, plus two health care systems received $850,000 to provide telehealth services in urban and rural parts of the state.

CenturyLink is working to expand internet access across the state with a goal to reach 50,000 homes and businesses in rural Colorado by 2021, reported the Sun. However, even with the help of federal funds, the company is only 60 percent to its goal. “Sparsely populated areas are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure,” said Jeremy Jones, a CenturyLink spokesman.

Other ISPs also have plans for expanding broadband across the state. One town will benefit from Utah’s Emery Telcom, which received a $2.7 million federal grant to build out service. Last week, Colorado Cellular (known as Viaero Wireless), was awarded $2.8 million in the latest round of the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II to expand broadband services to 731 locations in northeast Colorado. 

A co-op, Elevate Fiber, applied for a $1.4 million grant from the Department of Regulatory Affairs to cover the North Mesa region. Elevate Fiber has already brought gigabit service to 60 percent of the region, which is sparsely populated and “truly rural.” 

According to Mark Kurtz, senior business project manager at Elevate Fiber, the company relies on state and federal funding to help speed up the break-even point. “If this were CenturyLink or Charter, they would only build where they see a return for their money, and typically they want to see a return in 24 months,” said Kurtz. “That’s why they’ve never come to the more desolate areas. There’s really no money to be made, to be frank. A mile of infrastructure [costs] a mile of infrastructure.”

Although Neal-Graves wants to get Colorado to 100 percent broadband access someday, right now, it’s too hard to estimate a completion date. “I think it’s going to be hard for us to put a date out there to say, ‘OK, by this date, we’re going to get to 100%.’ We are evaluating that right now. But regardless of what we do, we’re going to report this twice a year,” he added.

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