Broadband Internet: Protecting the Future of Colorado’s Rural Communities

Broadband Internet:  Protecting the Future of Colorado’s Rural Communities

For Colorado to thrive in the 21st century, we want to grow our own Einsteins of the future.  Today, that possibility is out of reach for the 77% of those living in rural areas (11% of Colorado’s population) because they lack high-speed—or broadband—Internet connections. Being stuck in the internet slow lane costs these Coloradans job opportunities, hurts businesses, and deprives our communities of education and health care.

As I’ve travelled our state, I’ve heard from leaders and citizens in communities like Sterling, Craig, and Telluride.  One message has come through clearly during these conversations:  slow internet service undermines local job opportunities and it hurts families. No candidate is better prepared to address this issue than I am. I fought to improve internet for rural and poor communities as a Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation at the National Economic Council for President. As Colorado’s next Attorney General, I will work with communities around our state to address this important issue.

The Electricity of the Twenty-First Century

Students who lack access to broadband at home are at an extreme disadvantage, forced to do homework someplace else, sometimes even being forced to sit in the cold outside of a closed library.  The reason broadband is called the electricity of the twenty-first century is that access to high-speed Internet connections is crucial to everyday life in today’s information age.  As the Denver Post put it, “the lack of high-speed connections can hamper how efficiently and effectively schools, hospitals, and technology-driven businesses operate.  Reliable broadband can mean the difference between residents staying or leaving.”

Across Colorado, communities (such as Rio Blanco County) are taking matters into their own hands by developing broadband networks where the market does not attract private providers.  I visited Rio Blanco and studied its network–it is a great example of public sector leadership.  Similarly, a number of localities are looking at public-private partnerships, such as those proposed by Centurylink.

Bringing fast internet to the entire state is the sort of effort that can unite and benefit all Coloradans, regardless of party.  Failing to bring every Coloradan into the information age will widen the gap between our urban and rural areas and will prevent families and small business owners in many parts of our state from having an opportunity to succeed (as captured well here).  Supporting rural broadband also benefits urban communities because better rural connectivity translates into economic activity for urban businesses that can sell to new markets (as explained in this report).  While satellite internet broadband can help for some uses, it is not sufficient for many uses (such as schools and hospitals) and thus cannot replace the need for wired connections.

The Attorney General’s Office Can Facilitate Broadband Deployment

When I worked in the Obama administration we developed a bipartisan movement to spur broadband deployment across the United States. I want to bring that valuable experience to Colorado.  As our next Attorney General, I will ensure that the office acts as a problem solver and enforcer to support broadband deployment for rural communities.

As our next Attorney General, I will work the State’s broadband coordinator and other officials to help develop a playbook for helping communities around our State.  When I visited Routt County and learned about the broadband network it is building, I asked County Commissioners whether the AG’s office was helping them.  The answer was no. At present, the AG’s office is only checking legal boxes (and slowly at that) rather than being creative and helping solve problems.  We can and must do more.

By bringing together community and business leaders to create plans for deploying broadband, the AG’s office can provide a playbook of best practices, rather than placing bureaucratic obstacles in the way.  It can also legal, administrative, and other barriers to broadband deployment. As our State’s Attorney General, I will provide support for broadband mapping, procurement, distance learning, tele-medicine, and community engagement initiatives.  When we encounter barriers such as a lack of access to rights-of-way for Wireless Internet Service Providers (and others), I will be firm but fair in my efforts to remove them.

There are many things I’d start addressing on day one. Take the red tape blocking communities that want to solve their own problems: Colorado law (SB 152) requires voters to approve action by governments to build broadband networks. This law slows down communities who want to help themselves after they’ve been ignored by the private sector.  The vote requirement is a waste of everyone’s time and energy given the fact that voters consistently approve such projects.  The vote requirement portion of the law should be repealed.  At the same time, the AG’s Office should protect full and fair competition, ensuring that governmental entities don’t use their authority to gain an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

Another change we need to make is to enable access to existing electrical easements.  Indiana recently dealt with this very issue in passing the “Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion (FIBRE) Act.”  This law makes it more economically viable for broadband to be extended to rural areas by limiting the liability of broadband providers to owners of overhead lines, which are crucial for connectivity to rural areas.  We need to pass such a law here in Colorado.

Colorado’s state budget is always tight, but we can do better in supporting broadband with the resources we have. Colorado has developed a state “universal service fund” that is similar to a federal fund designed to support broadband deployment in rural areas.  As Attorney General, I will work with the Legislature, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that we use this money as creatively and efficiently as the law allows, including exploring possibilities like bonding against universal service funds.  In addition, the AG’s Office can and should ensure that companies that get public support dollars actually use those taxpayer dollars to get broadband services to rural Coloradans.  Finally, the AG’s office should help ensure access to federal programs, especially those subsidizing connections to schools and libraries, so that Colorado institutions and citizens are able to take full advantage of all available opportunities to make progress in this area.

Protecting Broadband Quality for All Consumers

As Colorado’s Attorney General, I will fight to ensure that Coloradoans get the quality access to the Internet services that they are paying for, including speed, reliability, and access to content.  For an example of such oversight, consider the New York Attorney General’s action against Time Warner when it failed to provide consumers with the broadband access service they paid for.  The attorney general sued Time Warner executives for, among other things, lying to customers about the speed of its internet service.  I will fight against such unacceptable conduct if it takes place here in Colorado.

Finally, as Attorney General, I will champion “network neutrality,” the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat content passing through the Internet equally, without favoring or blocking any of that content. As the Internet drives more and more of our lives, including our civic engagement, employment, commerce, and entertainment, we must protect competition in this space.  Indeed, the very term “network neutrality” was coined at a conference that I hosted.  Over the years, I have advocated for this principle, including during my work in the Obama Administration, and I will continue to do so as Colorado’s Attorney General, leading the charge against the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to end these important protections.

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Coloradans are pioneers.  We value our independence and our self-sufficiency.  We ask for a fair shot to make it on our own.  For all Coloradans to thrive in the twenty-first century, access to high-speed Internet connections is as critical as electricity was many years ago.  This issue impacts all of us—families, farmers, businesses, police, firefighters, educators, and hospitals.  As your next Attorney General, I will fight for broadband for all Coloradans as a top priority.

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Read Phil’s op-ed in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. 

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David St. John Larkin, IP Attorney

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