DENVER — Colorado is in store to receive $826.5 million from the federal government in an effort to expand broadband service across the state. The funding comes from the federal infrastructure act that Congress passed in 2021. Roughly $42.5 billion in funding from that law was set aside for broadband projects.
“It's enough, but it's also not enough, right? Because you have your one-time investment and then this investment is going to take funding to maintain upgrades over the years,” said Brandy Reitter, the executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office.
One of Reitter’s many jobs is to help execute an executive order signed by Gov. Jared Polis last year directing the state to come up with a strategy to bring high-speed internet to 99% of Colorado households by 2027.
Reitter said Colorado is moving in that direction but she admitted there is still a long way to go.
“Even a year ago, we were looking at a 14% gap and those who didn't have adequate access to broadband internet. Fast forward to now 2023, that number looks to be about 10%,” she said.
While the highest percentages of unserved and underserved households are in rural areas, Reitter said every county in Colorado has pockets of poor broadband service.
The reasons for the lack of broadband in rural areas has more to do with the infrastructure while the lack of internet in urban areas has more to do with digital equity and affordability.
The broadband office is now working on incentivizing local governments and providers through grant match funding programs.
“We're trying to make our money go as far as we can, but the understanding is still very expensive to serve, but the state can definitely partner... with industry and our public sector to get these dollars to go as far as possible,” Reitter said.
The massive infusion of federal funding comes as the state is opening up applications for municipalities to apply for $162 million under the Colorado Broadband grant program. That funding is coming from the federal Capital Projects Fund through the U.S. Department of Treasury.
The state is accepting applications through Aug. 21 for the matching funding program. Cities, counties, special districts, internet service providers and more are eligible to apply.
Even with all this funding, though, there are still several serious challenges ahead in bridging the digital divide.
One of the biggest challenges is the cost of installing the infrastructure in rural Colorado or areas with rough terrain.
“In some of our communities, you can have 15 homes across 20 square miles,” said Nate Walowitz, the regional broadband director for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG). “Because these markets are so small, the incumbent service providers just don't have the money and they can't get the return on their investment long term for actually pushing a lot of high-speed broadband initiatives.”
In an effort to bring the region together to work toward a solution, the NWCCOG came up with Project Thor, which is working to bring broadband to more than a dozen communities by establishing the "middle-mile network."
The middle mile is the segment of network that connects the network operator to localities. It does not cover the so-called last mile that brings internet into the actual home or business. The project’s goal is to connect more than 400 miles of fiber to underserved communities.
Even if the infrastructure is set up and people are able to access the internet, cost is another major hurdle for underserved communities because the connection is so expensive to set up and maintain. Nevertheless, Walowitz is excited about the federal funding.
“These new federal funds will allow us to take those initiatives and push further into our communities,” he said.
Meanwhile, Carlin Walsh, the CEO of Aristotle Communications, said there are some workarounds that should be considered for more hard-to-reach areas in the interim, like wireless internet.
“For a lot of customers, fiber connectivity is going to be extremely expensive and extremely difficult. So, we do believe that there are wireless options out there that, in the interim time, would work perfectly fine,” Walsh said.
Aristotle Communications serves about 5,000 customers in Lake, Chaffee, Custer, Fremont and Huerfano counties. He sees the federal funding as a great opportunity for the state but also a point of confusion.
“The internet service provider world is moving literally at the speed of light,” Walsh said. “The government inherently moves very slow. We all know that it's designed to move slow. But when you bring in, you know, billions of dollars in funding with organizations that are moving extremely fast being funded by organizations that move very slow, it just creates a very chaotic and confusing environment.”
Walsh recently published an op-ed in the Colorado Sun expressing some concerns about the allocation of money from the Capital Projects Fund. That’s because the state divided the counties into two different tiers based on internet needs. Tier 2 was considered to be better served while Tier 1 was considered to be underserved.
The Tier 1 counties would have access to the largest pool of grant funding and would be required to come up with less match funding to qualify for the grant. The Tier 2 counties, meanwhile, would be required to come up with more match funding and would only have access to a pool of less than $25 million in grants.
Chaffee and Lake counties were considered Tier 2 counties but Walsh believes they should have been in Tier 1 to qualify for more funding.
Because of his op-ed, Walsh was able to get the state to reconsider the ranking of those counties to move them into Tier 1. He’s excited about all the opportunities this federal funding will create for the counties he serves.
“I don't want to sit here and say that the most remote home and farm is going to get connected because that's, you know — this money is probably not going to do that. But it is going to move the needle on larger-scale projects that need to happen at regional levels,” Walsh said.
Colorado’s broadband landscape is improving but there is still a long way to go. Providers, counties and even the state’s broadband office agree that the federal funding will make a big difference but sustained funding will be the real challenge ahead.