An ambitious new plan by the state of Colorado seeks to end the state’s digital divide once and for all — and to do so using fiber, the gold standard for the fastest internet connections.
Just ask Brandy Reitter, who became the executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office in February. She took the gig because she wanted to do impactful work “that was well funded” so she could actually fix the problem. Now she’s leading the state’s plan to use $1 billion in federal money to improve internet service, not just to help those with no internet access, but those with subpar service. Unless Colorado households have a fiber connection, they are underserved or not served.
The Federal Communication Commission defines adequate speeds as 25 megabits per second down and 3 mbps up? That’s not good enough, Reitter says.
“So 25/3 is what we’re classifying as not served. And anything that’s under 100/20 is underserved,” Reitter said. “Do people feel like 25/3 is being served? It depends on your situation but I’ve heard from a lot of people that that’s not the case.”
She’s in the slow boat herself, though it sped up after a public-private effort to run fiber connecting Western Slope communities brought faster service closer to her home in Eagle. But not completely. She’s now on fixed wireless technology, which means an antenna on a facility miles away beams internet wirelessly to the antenna at her house. Distance, bad weather and other potential interference degrades speed. If she had a fiber-optic cable connecting her house to the internet source, data speeds would reach 1 gigabit per second in either direction, or 1,000 megabits.
“I probably now get maybe 50 (megabits) down and 18 up, which is still what we would classify as underserved,” said Reitter, previously the town manager of Eagle. “But before that, I was getting 12 down and like 1 up.”
Her office inside the Governor’s Office of Information Technology recently released the Colorado Broadband Roadmap report, which aims to get 99% of the state covered by 2027. This includes building training programs, providing tools for distance learning, and adding gigabit broadband to state parks, prisons and libraries.
The roadmap was done because of what appears to be the largest infusion of federal dollars for broadband ever. At minimum, there’s about $500 million available to Colorado. If targets are met, it could reach $900 million over five years. Include other federal grants, like the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, and the state’s share is more than $1 billion.
“There’s trends in every small town and one of those trends has always been connectivity,” Reitter said. “It has been crippling at times from, from a quality of life perspective and public safety and just from pure economics and economic prosperity. When we don’t have good connectivity, it’s hard to attract people to towns. It’s just hard to function. I’ve been in situations where the internet will go down for a whole day in the middle of the summer. And I know people are losing money.”
Reitter sat down with The Colorado Sun to explain what’s next and talk about the state’s roadmap.
Q: The state wants 99% broadband coverage by 2027. Urban areas are already at or near that rate. Rural coverage was estimated to be at 93% last year. Where are we exactly?
A: Those numbers are from the old way the state collected data.
That included asking internet service providers about their coverage. But not all would volunteer to share for competitive reasons resulting in incomplete data. The state also used federal broadband maps, which relied on census data. But the flawed method counted an entire census block as being served even if only one household had service.
And that makes the numbers hard to nail down, Reitter said. “We’ve been using census block data and self-reported data for a number of years and it’s hard to capture everybody on a map.”
The current belief is that 166,000 Colorado households lack internet access of speeds of up to 100 down and 20 up. About 14% of the state’s urban and rural areas are considered unserved or underserved.
The office is following the FCC’s lead by using a vendor that develops deeper location-level data by analyzing “hundreds of data sources,” according to the FCC. That includes “address records, tax assessment records, imagery and building footprints, census data, land use records, parcel boundaries, and geo-spatial road and street data.”
“What’s the number? I can tell you the number today because it’s in the report,” she said. “But six to nine months from now, it’ll be different because we’ll have better insight into location level mapping.”
The FCC, by the way, has been working to update how it tracks broadband coverage and plans to release the first draft of its new map in November.
Q: What funding did Colorado get and what’s the plan for getting to 99%?
A: In the past two years, Congress passed spending plans to provide up to $900 million in funding to Colorado to improve broadband access. These include:
- $400 million to $700 million — The Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Program (funded by the U.S. Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA)
- $21 million — Digital Equity Act (funding by IIJA)
- $5 million to $100 million — Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, (funded by IIJA)
- $171 million — Capital Projects Fund (funded by American Rescue Plan Act)
- $75 million — State and Local Fiscal Recovery (via ARPA)
It’s those last rural households that are the most expensive to connect. The Broadband Office calls them “negative business” cases, because no for-profit company was ever tempted to cut through rocky, mountainous terrain or to lay miles of cables just to add a new customer.
The state estimated that 20% of the most expensive areas to build will use up 67% of the capital investment — up to an estimated average cost of $134,000 for one location. And the way to attract companies to build out fiber is to provide more financial incentive.
“When we say targeting, it’s more about adjusting our subsidies and our grant programs to support different areas with different business cases so investment does happen,” she said. “In the negative business case, the subsidies will be a little bit higher and the (local) grant matches might be lower.”
This is similar to how the state’s broadband subsidies work today. For-profit internet providers can apply for grants from the Colorado Broadband Fund but also must provide some funding themselves. In September, $22.8 million was awarded to 15 projects, including a $1.3 million project from PC Telecorp to get gigabit internet to 55 households in a Yuma County farming community. About a quarter of the amount is coming from PC Telecorp.
The roadmap doesn’t spell out how the money will be split up to provide household access or digital literacy programs or infrastructure. But the report provides a timeline for the grant programs to be set up and awards made. The money must be pretty much used by 2026, according to the state.
Federal funding would help the Department of Local Affairs invest in “middle mile” infrastructure. Without it, local internet providers cannot connect to the internet backbones running nationwide. Additional access creates redundancy if the internet is cut off on one end.
There are also plans to equip anchor institutions, such as libraries, state parks and state prisons, with gigabit internet service. The idea is that better internet will help those communities connect to services like telemedicine, or work and educational opportunities.
Q: What about the digital divide within urban areas where gigabit service is available, but not affordable?
A: Many internet companies now offer lower-priced plans because of the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal program that started in January and provides $30 a month to low-income households for broadband service. In order for any internet company to get funding from the state, they must offer ACP, Reitter said.
“The state funding it or setting up a separate program outside the federal government, we’re not doing that. We’re supporting the efforts to promote the Affordable Connectivity Program,” she said. “And our numbers are on the rise.”
According to the latest federal data, about 167,220 Colorado households are enrolled in ACP. Based on a possible 761,000 households in the state that fall within income guidelines, that’s about 22% of eligible households, as of Oct. 24.
“Right now, it’s about physical access,” she said. “It’s really challenging for the government to get into the business of price control or market control.”
Q: Is there enough money to get Colorado to 99%? Who gets left out? Who is that 1%?
A: “Do we have enough funds? I believe so. We’re estimating it as anywhere from $400 million to $700 million as a state, but also in addition to what the state is receiving, there are so many other broadband programs out there, like ReConnect and (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) awards, the Tribal connectivity grants.”
Fiber may not work in all cases and federal grants allow for alternatives, like fixed wireless service. But what Reitter’s not considering in the financial investment is satellite internet service, like Starlink from SpaceX. While available to the farthest reaches of the state, it’s pricey, at $110 a month, plus a one-time hardware cost of $599. It’s also not that fast. Speedtest site Ookla clocked Starlink’s speeds at up to 110 megabits but concluded the median U.S. speed was a mere 62 megabits.
“I think Starlink is absolutely a solution for those that are so remote that the reality of them getting any kind of internet anytime soon from another carrier is going to be a challenge,” Reitter said. “(But) satellite doesn’t really come into the decision making process because our cost thresholds are really based on the cost to construct the fiber.”
She’s not counting on Starlink to get Colorado to 99%. But the federal funding should help build enough fiber access to help the state end the digital divide. At least for those who want it.
“The intent is universal coverage,” she said. “There’s always going to be that 1% that’s like, ‘I don’t need internet’ or ‘I don’t want internet’ or ‘I’m not connecting to the internet.’ But the folks that need it and want it, we’re covering all of you.”