In a mad scramble to verify a map that will be used to determine Colorado’s share of federal broadband funding, state officials trying to meet a Jan. 13 deadline made nearly 15,000 challenges in three weeks. The majority were accepted.
Of those, about 13,000 were submitted for incorrect addresses, the wrong number of units in a building and other inaccurate locations. So far, 6,700 location challenges were accepted. But more critical were “availability” challenges submitted by the state, partly thanks to Coloradans who submitted their own protests, that provided evidence that internet service was either much slower than advertised, too expensive or not available when ordered.
All 1,500 availability challenges were accepted, Megan Gernert, manager of the Broadband Data Program at the state agency, told a crowd of economic development and internet industry folks during the two-day Internet For All: Colorado Broadband Summit in Westminster that started Wednesday.
“I’ve been told that’s a pretty good success rate,” Gernert said. “It’s an ongoing process to make sure that the (Federal Communication Commission) maps are as accurate as possible.”
An accurate FCC national broadband map is critical if Colorado wants every federal dollar available to improve subpar internet service for its rural and urban households. Every state will receive $100 million of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program. The rest? It will be allocated to areas nationwide depending on their unserved or underserved counts on the broadband map to provide digital equity. Underserved is defined as households where internet access is slower than 100 mbps, making it tough for families with multiple children to log in for remote learning.
Better map data means millions of dollars more
Corrections added in 41,960 new locations between versions one and two of the national broadband map, thanks to the input from Colorado. That could translate into millions of additional dollars, said Brandy Reitter, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office.
“We’ve done a couple of analyses on the cost per location in Colorado and it’s around $4,000,” Reitter said. “If you do a back of the envelope calculation, it’s more than $100 million. … And that was just the first pass. I would imagine that the second pass, it will produce more because when we looked at the data — and Colorado has 3 million locations give or take — we were missing around 300,000 locations on our map.”
Based on the additional locations, the amount could mean $168 million for Colorado. But the important thing to remember here is that the BEAD money is intended to provide funding to help the underserved population get adequate internet service with download speeds of 100 mbps and 20 up. Adequate service means that multiple people in the same home can access the internet at the same time to work, learn or use the internet to meet with their doctors.
The state already manages its own broadband map and the focus on accuracy that looks at actual houses and buildings, the state’s improved on its own data. It’s also discovered that only 88.8% of Colorado households statewide have service of 100 mbps down and 20 mbps up. There’s approximately 213,170 households in the state who are considered underserved.
Coloradans will have a second chance to provide input into how and where the state should invest the money after June 30, when the federal BEAD money allocation is announced.
States will then have six months to come up with their own plans to get internet service to the underserved. The plans should be unique to each state. Should it be fiber to the home or will cheaper services, like wireless, be adequate? How much should “affordable” service cost? And what’s the cost threshold to build service to a single house miles from the main internet line?
Those decisions would be determined based on the state’s own map of who has adequate internet and who doesn’t. That’s when the public needs to chime in again, said Evan Feinman, BEAD’s director.
“Where the rubber hits the road on this program, the really critical document is the initial proposal. You can think of that as the blueprint of the machine that’s going to generate the specific infrastructure projects that are going to get every Coloradan online,” Feinman said. “That’s the critical time for the public to engage in making sure that if they don’t have broadband that they’re going to get it.”
The state proposal should spell out how much funding is available to private companies to install service. A grant process will be implemented with a building deadline of five years. While the process seems speedy, that’s really not fast enough for families with children entering high school. In five years, high school will be over.
“We’ve got two values that are really intentional. There’s the need to get these disconnected Americans who are on the wrong side of the digital divide online. At the same time, we have the recognition that this is a generational opportunity, and it’s just really important that we get it right,” Feinman said.
Past and future federal broadband money
The conference was meant to provide local governments and the broadband industry with an update. But it was also a way to highlight concerns for policymakers and state departments that will be involved in the public projects.
“Broadband is just like water, electricity, it’s a need right now,” said Bernadette Cuthair, director of planning and development for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “Once we do this big investment, how do we support it? How do we support this big effort? And how do we sustain it?”
A woman from Huerfano County’s economic development office said it takes a long time to get construction permits approved by the Colorado Department of Transportation to install fiber to connect neighborhoods. CDOT’s Jonas Durham acknowledged that it has taken too long, but added, “we’re making processing improvements where we are very focused on removing a lot of unnecessary steps to … reduce those timelines and increase service.”
A question about the billions already spent on rural broadband and digital divide projects had Michael McReynolds, with the state’s Office of Information Technology Legislative Affairs, explaining how it’s different this time. In the past, the money went straight to the private companies. With BEAD, the states will get the money and then work with communities, private companies and local and federal agencies to determine what projects get funded and keep them moving along.
That’s part of the reason why, in 2023, there are still parts of Colorado with limited or no internet service. The cost for private companies to build in rural areas with few potential customers was just too high. Even building a “middle mile” connection and backup connections to help small towns connect to larger pipes crisscrossing the nation was too pricey.
A few years ago, a group of western Colorado communities decided to build their own middle mile network. Known as Project Thor and spearheaded by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the 481 miles of connections was made possible by collaboration. It helped attract private companies to finish out the process of offering broadband service to residents’ homes. Northwest COG is now trying to help area communities find funding so every household can get fast service.
“For our local communities, there’s still a lot of unserved areas,” said Jon Stavney, Northwest COG’s executive director, who was at the conference. “We have a number of places we’re trying to help. We’re helping with Yampa Valley Electric. They’re trying to serve Craig in the middle mile. We’re not sure exactly how, because the (federal) funding isn’t very middle-mile friendly quite yet. It’s very last-mile focused. That has definitely been a challenge for most of our communities.”