JUNE 21, 2021

Rural broadband can reunite Colorado’s future

Pueblo, CO The digital divide in both rural and urban areas of Colorado is crimping nearly every major sector of our state’s economy. If we are going to win in intensifying global competition battles  whether in traditional sectors like forestry and agriculture or in high-tech, research-driven fields we need to tap the skills and potential of every Coloradoan. And that means everyone has to be online.


The pending infrastructure bill in Congress gives us the best hope to wire rural communities not yet reached by broadband networks and help more low-income Coloradoans sign up for the service already available at their doorstep. But it can only work if we get smart with the plan. Most communities across our state already have world-class, gigabit speed networks. Here in Pueblo, 99.7% of neighborhoods can choose from multiple providers, and 98% have access to next generation speeds of 250 Mbps or faster. These networks are the building blocks for advancing education, empowering telehealth and accelerating economic growth.


But west toward the San Luis Valley, the story is different. In Saguache County, one in every five census blocks have no broadband, and others are only partially served. Unconnected Farmers and ranchers can’t utilize cloud-connected precision agriculture tools, and their kids are shut out of the online education taken for granted in cities and suburbs.


President Biden wants to include $100 billion in the infrastructure package to address the digital divide, and Republicans have countered with a $65 billion offer. Relative to typical beltway dysfunction, this is actually not a bad starting point.


Past failed efforts to fix the rural divide show that just throwing money at the problem without clear priorities or accountability  doesn’t work. Exposés by the New York Times and Politico, and investigations by Government Accountability Office, detailed how inadequate oversight allowed 2009 stimulus funds to be wasted building networks in communities that already had them.


This time we can avoid debacles if we keep our eyes on the prize, focus on priority areas and ensure accountability.


Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republican Sen. John Cornyn are leading a bipartisan effort to do just that: target federal dollars to communities that don’t already have broadband and impose a 3-year timetable to get the job done – with strict standards of accountability.


The Manchin-Cornyn bill also imposes important – and refreshing – checks against patronage. Rather than steering federal dollars to favored providers – as historical “eligibility” requirements used to do – the bill encourages all providers to compete. From private companies to rural coops and public-private partnerships, any provider who thinks they have the best solution for a given area – whether wired, wireless, or satellite – can apply and compete on equal footing to provide taxpayers the best deal.


And politically, the bill may just be the sweet spot to unify Democrats and Republicans and show the rest of the country that broadband is a bipartisan issue that benefits every American, regardless of geography, socioeconomic status or political party.


But this can only succeed if voters insist that lawmakers resist the armies of lobbyists who want to derail bipartisan consensus in service of special interests or ideological agendas.


Some are pushing to use federal broadband funds to push more local governments into the business of operating broadband services – even in areas that already have world class networks. It’s an idea that has worked in a few places, but failed in many more – and risks steering scarce tax dollars away from the unserved areas where they’re most needed.


Others have suggested “futureproofing” network investments by redefining “broadband” to require both download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps or more. While well-intended, to be sure, experts warn this idea would actually leave almost 60% of the country considered “unserved” and thereby eligible to divert funds much more urgently needed in communities like Saguache County. $65 billion might be enough – and $100 billion almost certainly would be – to finally bring broadband infrastructure to every corner of rural America. We know what needs to be done, and cannot keep repeating our mistakes of the past. We have a good roadmap to get the job done if lawmakers will only take yes for an answer.



Chris Wiseman is a Pueblo County Commissioner.