Internet Legislation Could Boost Rural Economy — And Health

How do you use the internet? Connecting with family and friends? Watching cat videos?

How about expanding your business? Filling out college applications?

What about communicating with your doctor? Getting mental health counseling?

About one of four rural households in Colorado don’t have access to broadband internet. But the state legislature is working to make it a reality for more rural residents. That could spell big gains in rural parts of the state — especially for health.

As of 2017, at least one in 10 rural counties did not have a licensed counselor. Over half of Colorado rural counties did not have an active licensed addiction counselor.

Expanded internet service could provide thousands of rural Coloradans with critical connections to distant health care providers like therapists and psychologists using live video and other technologies. CHI is following several bills this session that could make that expansion happen. Here are two of note.

Senate Bill 2

This bill sends money that has gone toward installing phone landlines to developing internet access in underserved parts of the state instead. It passed the legislature and is awaiting Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature. Legislators have tried for years — mostly unsuccessfully — to secure better funding for rural broadband.

Currently, the Public Utilities Commission collects a fee from all telecommunication companies in the state for the High Cost Support Mechanism (HCSM), which totals around $34 million. The HCSM is distributed in grants to companies that provide the “last mile” of basic telephone and broadband services in underserved parts of the state.

Grants have included broadband infrastructure projects in hard-to-reach places — like building transmission towers in Kiowa County and adding fiber cables along Colorado Highway 149, which passes through the Rio Grande National Forest in Mineral and Hinsdale counties.

Rural telecommunication providers are the winners under this bill — to the tune of about $115 million in potential awards between 2019 and 2023.

But non-rural telecommunications providers lose, especially CenturyLink, the state’s largest telecommunications company. After enjoying the lion’s share of those HCSM grant dollars, the company’s support from that fund would zero out by 2023. CenturyLink’s leadership is warning that landline costs will increase in rural areas as a result.

Beyond redistributing funds, the bill does a couple other things. For one, it adds two more broadband industry members to the Broadband Deployment Board, which was established in 2014 under the state Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) to manage broadband grants. And it specifies how the board can make broadband grants. For example, the board must award grants based on the internet speed promised by the grantee. SB 2 also boosts the standard on what it means to have access to broadband — from four megabits per second to a minimum internet speed of 10 megabits per second.

Though this bill has raced through both chambers, a similar bill, SB 17-081, failed in the legislature last year. The difference could be attributed to a couple things — from stronger bipartisan sponsorship to the fact that last year’s bill required almost half a million dollars in additional appropriations, whereas SB 2 requires none.

House Bill 1099

HB 1099 ensures that companies bidding for HCSM grants to expand broadband access in underserved parts of the state offer competitive internet speeds and prices.

The bill emerged from a drama that played out last year in Ridgway, a town of less than 1,000 people that served as the setting of John Wayne’s 1969 film True Grit.

A small telecommunications company called Deeply Digital won a $1.2 million HCSM broadband grant in 2016 to provide fiber-optic services in Ridgway. But CenturyLink — the incumbent broadband provider in the area — appealed and won the grant. However, CenturyLink ended up offering a slower internet service than what Deeply Digital proposed.

According to House sponsor Barbara McLachlan (D-Durango), this bill would ensure that “what happened in Ridgway will not happen to another underserved community in Colorado.”

Today, an incumbent company already providing broadband services in a rural part of the state can appeal to win one of those HCSM grants. That means small, entrepreneurial providers that try to enter the market can get knocked out by a bigger provider that’s been in the area for years.

HB 1099 wouldn’t change that rule. But it would require that the incumbent grantee provide at least the level of broadband service the original grant winner proposed at the same speed and price, or better.

Critics are concerned the bill could start a race to gather rural broadband territory, especially since SB 2 could dramatically change who is eligible to receive broadband grant dollars.

That said, the bill is moving ahead. It passed its second Senate reading on Thursday, March 22, and seems likely to head to the Governor’s desk for signature in the coming week.

With these bills and others, rural Colorado has seen some notable wins this session. Other bills of note:

SB 104: Federal Funds for Rural Broadband Deployment

This bill directs the Colorado Broadband Deployment Board to apply for federal funding through the Federal Communications Commission’s Remote Areas Fund to develop internet access in high-cost areas of the state. It passed its final hurdle in the House on March 21.

SB 5: Rural Economic Advancement of Colorado Towns

This bill requires the state to provide administrative help for rural counties struggling with job losses because of a sudden change by a major employer, like a plant closure or round of layoffs. For example, about 1,650 rural Coloradans lost their jobs in significant job layoffs in 2017. SB 5 allows those communities to seek state assistance to create and retain jobs. It passed both chambers — after failing in the legislature several times in recent years — and was sent to the governor for signature on March 14.

These new bills could spell big gains in rural Colorado, especially for health. But it takes more than internet access alone. Keep a look out for the results, from increased telehealth adoption to higher median incomes to — we hope — better health outcomes.

Find Alex Caldwell on Twitter: @CHI_ACaldwell

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