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Colorado will miss its goal to hit 92% broadband coverage in rural areas by June

Sussing out which parts of the state barely have service is a guessing game. But several gigabit internet projects in the works could fill gaps.

Looking west towards Dove Creek, Colorado on the Colorado-Utah border. (Provided by James Pendleton, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
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The state’s goal to get 92% of rural Colorado connected to decent broadband by June will miss the mark. No single factor was to blame — and it had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. But an overall reason is that determining the figure is a crapshoot.

“There’s no place for us to go to get more accurate information,” said Anthony Neal-Graves, executive director of the Colorado Office of Broadband, which is focused on getting rural Colorado coverage to 100%. ”Even the (Federal Communications Commission) admits that the data they have is awful.”

Internet access in the state’s rural communities has barely budged in 12 months. It’s now at 87.1%, up from 86% last June. The state updates the numbers twice a year based on surveys sent to internet service providers. Responding is not required by law and nearly a quarter of the 90 ISPs surveyed failed to share an update.

That’s not stopping Neal-Graves, though. He said the state has awarded nearly $20 million in grants in the past year to local governments and private internet providers to improve service in rural communities.

In an update on Thursday, Neal-Graves shared the results with the broadband community. He pointed out that in March, the Department of Local Affairs awarded $3.1 million to expand Region 10’s network to Ouray and Gunnison counties. Two health care systems received $850,000 to provide telehealth services in urban and rural parts of the state.

While the economic impact of COVID-19 could reduce future grants, that hasn’t happened yet. Neal-Graves still wants to get Colorado to 100% some day.

“We need to track it because it does hold people accountable that we still have a problem,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be hard for us to put a date out there to say, ‘OK, by this date we’re going to get to 100%.’ We are evaluating that right now. But regardless of what we do, we’re going to report this twice a year.”

The Colorado Broadband Office tracks the spread of broadband service in the state especially in rural regions. The data on this map comes primarily from internet service providers self reporting their coverage. The latest map, based on returned surveys from 69 of 90 ISPs, shows that the state’s rural coverage is 87.1%. (Screenshot)

Communities are considered to have adequate access if they meet the federal guideline of download speeds of 25 mbps down and 3 mbps up. If ISPs don’t share how they’re doing, the state also uses a speed-test to track service. Responses to the twice-annual survey are confidential because they include some home addresses. A map showing coverage and speeds in the state has some areas clocking in at zero to mere kilobits per second.

CenturyLink continues to expand faster internet in the state and has a goal of 50,000 homes and businesses in rural Colorado by 2021 with the help of federal funds. But even with federal help, the company had been able to get to only 60% of the targeted population as of last July and cannot reach every rural Colorado consumer. 

“Sparsely populated areas are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure,” said Jeremy Jones, a CenturyLink spokesman, in an email. “In rural areas, the need to have broadband equipment close to each customer sometimes means providers end up serving a smaller number of homes, which makes it uneconomic to serve some areas. We continue to work closely with local communities, as well as state and federal policymakers, on creative public-private partnerships that bring high-speed internet services to more rural Coloradans.”

More: Internet service in western Colorado was so terrible that towns and counties built their own telecom

While Colorado missed the June goal, the data doesn’t include what’s on the horizon. There’s a lot of activity around the state to get rural communities faster internet service.

The town of Dove Creek learned in November that its 494 homes and businesses will benefit from Utah’s Emery Telcom, which received a $2.7 million federal grant to build gigabit service for it. Breckenridge attracted Allo Communications to manage new fiber internet service, which competes with CenturyLink.

Last week, the FCC awarded the latest round of its Connect America Fund Phase II. NE Colorado Cellular (known as Viaero Wireless) was among the latest awardees, receiving $2.8 million to expand broadband services to 731 locations in northeast Colorado. Five Colorado companies, including Viaero, had previously received $1.74 million in CAF 2 funds.

And the 481-mile fiber line stretching from Georgetown to Rangely became fully operational last month from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

Northwest COG’s “Project Thor” network runs through a 10-county region and sells service to municipalities, school districts, health care facilities and internet service providers, like Allo, which then build out the rest of the lines to customer homes. 

The 92% goal, which was set in 2018, doesn’t mean as much to communities doing the work of building out broadband.

“That number is a nearly meaningless geographic aggregation which does not reflect the daily experience of citizens or businesses who use the internet across rural Colorado for an array of needs,” said Jon Stavney, Northwest COG’s executive director. “Because the coverage metric, if you can call it that, comes top down from industry, rather than bottom up from the needs of users for things that include speed, reliability and a fair price, it should be recognized for the very fuzzy generalization that it is. It isn’t really a metric at all.”

Near the Interstate 70 bridge in Eagle, workers connect Project Thor to internet fiber already installed by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Project Thor is a 481-mile internet network built by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments to improve internet service in Western Colorado. The two-year project was completed in April 2020. (Provided by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments)

But how it does help the communities is to remind everyone about what it costs to install broadband in places where people live miles away from a neighbor, said Mark Kurtz, senior business project manager at Elevate Fiber, the internet service from Delta-Montrose Electric Association. 

The company, which applied for a $1.4 million grant from the state Department of Regulatory Affairs to cover the North Mesa region, has now covered 60% of its community in four years with gigabit service. In those neighborhoods, there are maybe 100 people — and potential customers — living within a mile of one another. The remaining 40% targets the “truly rural,” he said, and could take 30 to 50 years to recover the costs. 

“If this were CenturyLink or Charter, they would only build where they see a return for their money and typically they want to see a return in 24 months. That’s why they’ve never come to the more desolate areas,” Kurtz said. “There’s really no money to be made, to be frank. A mile of infrastructure (costs) a mile of infrastructure.”

But as a co-op, financial return is outweighed by the need of members. Seeing a return after 30 to 50 years is not unheard of. Getting federal or state help will speed up the co-op’s break-even point, he said.

“With a partnership, the 30 to 40 years can now break even in 10,” he said. “We need to lean on partnerships with (the state and federal agencies).”

This story was updated at 9 a.m. on May 21 to include additional rural projects receiving grants from the state.

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