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Opinion: Rural broadband goals shelved for backroom politics

Speaker of the Colorado state House, KC Becker, a Democrat, recently appointed Jon Becker, a Republican and no relation, to the Broadband Deployment Board without interviewing any other candidates. 

Brian Martin, interim director of the Broadband Fund confirmed Becker’s appointment.

Becker’s appointment matters because this 16-person board, an arm of the state Department of Regulatory Affairs, doles out big grants to small towns as well as companies providing high-speed internet. 

David Marston

For rural Colorado, it’s one of the most important economic development prizes offered in the state. Since its inception in 2016, the fund’s website says it has awarded matching grants of $19.6 million to unserved rural areas. 

Small towns like Red Cliff and Norwood used its grants and rave about the results. Rural electrical cooperatives try to tap it with mixed results, such as Yampa Valley Electric’s subsidiary Luminate, Delta-Montrose Electric’s Elevate, and Jade Communications in the sparsely populated San Luis Valley.

Other competitors for its grants include the 70-plus municipalities smaller than 7,500 people that have or plan to create community broadband that’s for-profit. Because the Broadband Deployment Board is one of the few sources of rural funding for high-speed Internet, it’s crucial.

When I interviewed KC Becker Sept. 12, she said she was free to choose anyone she wanted. It was a “wireless position,” she said. “He works for a wireless company, so I appointed him.”  

But his is not a wireless position. Broadband Board Seats are defined by House Bill 14-1328, details found at Colorado.gov, and the wireless seat is appointed by the minority leader of the House. 

Becker’s appointment is for what’s called the competitive local exchange carrier position (CLEC), and it’s one of the few seats on the broadband board that a representative from small, for-profit, community-based broadband companies can occupy. Jon Becker replaces Jeff Brown, who also works for Viaero Wireless. That gives an appearance it’s a Viaero seat, not a CLEC seat.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Why did KC Becker choose Jon Becker for the broadband seat? A safe bet is political payback. In 2017, while he also was serving in the state House of Representatives, he crossed the aisle to co-sponsor KC Becker’s bill to fund rural hospitals (Colorado Healthcare Affordability and Sustainability Enterprise.) 

That so-called CHASE legislation, which helped my local Delta County Memorial Hospital, among others, is her signature work. Even with Jon Becker’s help, it barely squeaked through. Still, he’s the wrong person for the broadband job.

KC Becker told me, “I had no list of candidates,” but if she had searched, she’d have found worthy applicants from scores of companies. 

Jon Becker’s bio reveals that he is a career politician with no telecom experience. On Viaero’s website, Becker’s title is vice president of government and business. Viaero is a three-state company that provides wireless and some internet with speeds up to 40 megabits per second or mbps.  

In a fiber-optic world, that’s snail speed. Federal minimums defining broadband is 25 mbps. Fast, the experts say, is 1,000 mbps. It’s questionable whether a mostly wireless company should occupy that position at all.

The Broadband Fund’s help can tip the scales between poverty and prosperity in rural areas. Moffatt and Routt County are destined in the near future to lose thousands of coal and coal-related jobs as renewables replace coal-fired power. The town of Craig, in Moffat County, has three coal-fired power plants

According to the Mountain Town News, Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said recently “it will take 22 Walmarts or 38 Hampton Inns to make up for the lost property tax assessment of the coal plants.”   

The Broadband Board’s website at Dora.gov, show Yampa Valley’s Luminate has two grant applications pending in front of the board.

To put it bluntly: The Broadband Board is the steward of the future of these rural areas, and they have now lost one of only two chances to occupy a seat on the board and be heard.

Who else besides Becker now sits on the board?  Among others, there’s Roberta Robinette of AT&T, with almost 175 million total subscribers, John Lee, of Charter Communications with 26 million subscribers, and Mike Nelson, a Comcast lobbyist who speaks for 27.6 million subscribers (subscriber data based on company websites).  

Mammoth Networks is among the smaller companies occupying the board but it has two representatives, including Jane Blackstone. Her Linkedin identifies her as a consultant whose only client is Mammoth. 

She used to work as the Steamboat Springs Chamber Economic Development Director, but her title on the broadband board is “Unserved Western Slope.” Meanwhile, Brian Wagner of Mammoth has the only other seat that most recipients of these grants could occupy, the wireline, that’s appointed by the governor.

Few of these large companies are working to install new fiber, the future of broadband.  Most protect existing territory, wringing profits from aging copper lines and coaxial cable.

That means the current broadband deployment board speaks for the past. Their interests are not to aid rural areas with small populations, though that is exactly who the board has a mandate to help — any town or area with less than 7500 people.

For perspective, in the 1930s, the federal government came into rural areas and lit them up with electricity and provided universal telephone access. 

In 2019, it’s big corporations who rule, and the building of rural broadband, which is the necessary infrastructure of the modern era, lies in the hands of Denver politicians who, at times, use it for political patronage.  

Meanwhile, Gov. Jared Polis has left two of his six appointments vacant, one vacant since before his election. It seems inexplicable that KC Becker can appoint someone overnight but the governor’s appointees are stalled. The office of Gov. Polis did not respond to my requests for an interview.  

The cynic in me believes that the broadband board is a club, a good old boys club. This club carries on old traditions and honors old dynasties.  

New members need not apply.

David Marston owns commercial property in Delta County and lives in New York City.

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