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Opinion: As county commissioners, we see smart ways to close Colorado’s digital divide

Success requires more than just throwing money at the problem. We’ve tried that in the past, and it failed.

Workers feed cabling through a fresh ditch to install new telecommunications lines in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on Nov. 23, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s digital divide spans both rural and urban areas of our state, but it’s two different divides and two different challenges. 

The Rural Divide is primarily an infrastructure problem: At least 100,000 Coloradans don’t have connectivity to high-speed broadband networks. 

Top row: Hilary Cooper, Randall Wheelock. Bottom row: Richard Cimino, Emma Pinter.

In urban areas, it’s an Adoption Divide – world-class networks are available almost everywhere, but one in four homes still aren’t connected.  Even as we close rural infrastructure gaps, the challenge of getting more of our neighbors online in both cities and small towns will remain.

The infrastructure package being debated in Washington could be an unprecedented opportunity to permanently stamp out both of Colorado’s digital divides.  But the White House’s initial proposal only addresses half the problem – betting the farm on infrastructure while giving a cold shoulder to progressives who’ve demanded an equal focus on the Adoption Divide.

We should step back, recalibrate, and understand we can solve both if we spend our limited federal dollars wisely.

Let’s start with the rural piece of the puzzle.  The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 8.2% of rural Coloradans don’t have broadband networks in their communities – and this probably underestimates the full extent of the Rural Divide here in Colorado.

In these unserved areas, higher construction costs in the mountains, coupled with fewer potential customers per square mile, mean the economics of private investment aren’t alone sufficient to bridge the gap; public subsidies are clearly needed.

A recent study estimates it will cost $61 billion to connect every rural home; the Biden plan is even more ambitious, proposing $100 billion.

But success requires more than just throwing money at the problem. We’ve tried that in the past, and it failed. 

The EAGLE-Net debacle a decade ago — a program to expand broadband across Colorado — was funded by a $100 million U.S. Commerce Department stimulus grant and ended up wasting huge sums building duplicative networks in already-wired urban neighborhoods.  To add insult to injury, it then ran out of money before connecting some of the remote, rural schools that were the supposed marque purpose of the entire undertaking.

This time we need better rules, oversight, and accountability to get the job done. And if we manage the Rural Divide wisely and responsibly, that will free up resources to tackle the Adoption Divide at the same time. 

By some estimates, the broadband adoption gap affects five times more Americans than the rural infrastructure gap. The last thing in the world we should do is to force these two challenges to compete against one another for limited resources.   Instead, a wisely designed infrastructure bill can help solve both.

A permanent broadband assistance program, for example, is critically important to help solve the adoption challenge.  

Broadband providers’ low-income programs have already proven that affordability programs work.  By offering low-income families service for $10 or $15 per month, providers have connected over 12 million Americans.  Many cities leveraged those programs for public-private partnerships during COVID-19 to connect students without broadband at home. 

As successful as these programs are, any cost may still be a cost too much for families living meal-to-meal.  That’s why Congress created a new Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) in December – a new solution that we should now make permanent.  

Many leading civil rights leaders – including the National Urban League, the African American Mayors Association, and the League of United Latin American Citizens – have joined with tech and internet companies to call for a permanent assistance program.

But the White House has been slow to come around on this idea, instead endorsing a wish list of unproven ideas.  

Mandating that new rural network buildouts offer the same upstream capacity as downstream seems like puzzling overregulation that will divert critical resources needed elsewhere; 90% of consumers’ internet use is downstream.  And using limited federal dollars to overbuild networks in communities that already have them isn’t really a solution to either our Rural Divide or our Adoption Divide. 

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In fact, this kind of wasteful overbuilding proved the Achilles heel of the 2009 stimulus program, as funds intended for communities that didn’t have broadband were diverted to those that already did.  

We can solve the universal broadband challenge if we are smart – the way we were a century ago when we connected every household to electricity.  Let’s focus on the basics and spend money where it is needed, not tilt at windmills. 

Simple, targeted subsidy programs will do the trick.  In unconnected rural areas, we need a subsidy program to build networks where they don’t exist.  And nationwide, we need a subsidy for low-income families that can’t afford even steeply reduced monthly prices. 

We can find bipartisan consensus on both priorities. 


Hilary Cooper is a San Miguel County commissioner. Randall Wheelock is a Clear Creek County commissioner. Rich Cimino is a Grand County commissioner. Emma Pinter is an Adams County commissioner.


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