This article first appeared in the Grand Junction Sentinel on March 14, 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic not only presented a public health crisis, but also highlighted the inequities of access to broadband for those who live and work in rural parts of the state. Remote workers, students, and companies pivoting to work-from-home models all depend on internet access and the need for statewide broadband was brought sharply into focus.
Connecting rural Colorado isn’t a project any single company or government agency can solve on its own. It’s an all-hands-on-deck commitment that pulls together federal government resources, state government leadership, private sector investment and bold job-creating plans.
Federal investment is crucial to growing broadband infrastructure. President Biden has stated he wants to expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American. A bold but noble goal, one that is already underway with the recently passed American Rescue Plan which earmarks $7.172 billion for broadband expansion for schools and libraries, helping ensure that children across the country can fully participate in remote learning, even as schools look to reopen safely.
Other goals that the administration has stated include:
- Pledge $20 billion in new federal funding for rural broadband, closing the digital divide and providing high-paying jobs with benefits for its installation.
- Triple the existing funding for Community Connect broadband grants to expand broadband access in rural areas.
- Make available key federally-controlled telecom resources, like towers, poles, and rights-of-way.
- Work with Congress to pass the Digital Equity Act, helping communities tackle the digital divide.
Private Investment Role
USTeleComm, the broadband association, released its USTelecom Industry Metrics & Trends in April 2020 which showed that over the past generation, broadband providers have invested nearly $2 trillion in broadband infrastructure. This infrastructure has made broadband service available to 96% of American homes.
That said, broadband gaps remain in high-cost rural areas. President Biden’s proposal to have the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture support cities and towns that want to build municipally-owned broadband networks would help address these gaps, as well as allowing private broadband companies access to key federally-controlled telecom resources, like towers, poles, and rights-of-way
In Colorado, equal access to broadband is a priority of the Polis administration and many Colorado agencies are working cooperatively with local and federal partners to address this important issue.
Located in the Governor’s Office of Information Technology, the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) leads a statewide effort to expand broadband coverage and quality for all Coloradans. CBO oversees the Colorado Broadband Advisory Board which facilitates engagement across public and private partnerships.
The Broadband Deployment Board, housed in the Department of Regulatory Agencies, provides grants through the Broadband Fund to deploy broadband service in unserved areas of the state. Since 2016, the Board has awarded almost $41 million in grants to 51 projects. As a result, over 25,500 rural households across Colorado have benefited from broadband Internet access.
To support the use of broadband and its role in the future of Colorado’s workforce, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment is launching two separate online certificate programs -- one for employers and one for employees -- designed to help workers and employers alike prepare to succeed in a virtual workplace environment.
At Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, we launched the Location Neutral Employment Program (LONE) to encourage remote work throughout the state. We’re proud that multiple companies have already contracted with the State to produce hundreds of location-neutral jobs throughout Colorado.
The LONE program provides incentives to companies that allow employees to work in a rural location at least three days a week. The program works with rural and urban economic development organizations to encourage new and expanded businesses to participate in the program for applicable new hires.
The pandemic has had a profound impact on our personal and professional interactions. Circumstances beyond our control have altered our business models and accelerated the use and need for technology. As the way companies conduct business continues to evolve, access to broadband is paramount to our economic future. By working together with federal and state partners to provide infrastructure, along with the programs and incentives to make broadband accessible throughout the state, we will fulfill our vision of a Colorado for everyone.