- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

DENVER (AP) - A bill to accelerate the construction of high-speed broadband internet service in hard-to-reach Colorado areas is on its way to the governor’s desk - one designed to bridge the economic divide between rural and urban parts of the state.

By a 29-6 vote, Colorado’s Senate on Tuesday passed House amendments to the bill , long a top priority for legislators from both parties as well as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. For years, advocates have maintained that the state’s eastern plains, western slope and many mountain towns have missed out on the state’s economic boom because of sluggish or non-existent service. Reliable internet can be a lifeline for farmers connecting with markets, telemedicine, public schools and small businesses.

Nationally, 40 percent of U.S. residents in rural areas don’t have access to broadband, compared to just 4 percent in urban areas, according to a 2016 Federal Communications Commission report.

Hickenlooper wanted to extend broadband availability in rural Colorado from 75 percent now to 100 percent by 2020_and at minimal speeds deemed sufficient by the Federal Communications Commission, or roughly 25 megabits per second for downloads and three megabits per second for uploads.

While not meeting that 2020 goal, the Colorado bill would take money from a fund to subsidize rural telephone service to subsidize broadband investment over an accelerated five-year period ending in 2023. A companion Senate bill on the verge of passing the House would direct the state to seek a waiver to apply for additional funds from the FCC.

Those grants are needed for the same reason rural telephone lines are subsidized: The cost of laying cable or fiber networks to isolated communities or even single homes far outweighs what operators can charge their customers.

In 2019, the bill would devote 60 percent of the telephone subsidy fund, known as the High Cost Support Mechanism, to support companies installing broadband infrastructure in rural Colorado. The telephone fund, which is generated from a universal surcharge on all residents’ phone bills, would transfer greater amounts in subsequent years until its demise.

Legislative analysts estimate more than $115 million will go to broadband grants between 2019 and 2023.

Colorado’s largest rural telephone provider, Louisiana-based CenturyLink, has received 95 percent of state rural phone subsidies. It warned the accelerated drawdown could mean higher monthly bills for its 225,000 rural customers.

So, too, did some lawmakers representing rural districts, such as Republican Rep. Perry Buck, whose district includes parts of Larimer and Weld counties. Buck urged a more gradual transition during House debate on the bill on March 15. “To all my friends in urban districts: These rural people need this slow transition,” she said.

Proponents included the University of Colorado Board of Regents, who insisted the university’s medical staff could deliver better health care to rural residents through video conferencing and other telemedicine.

Dr. Christopher Davis, a specialist in emergency medicine and care at Aurora’s University of Colorado Hospital, testified in a recent hearing that more rural patients would be able to use medical apps to manage diabetes, blood pressure and a host of other conditions as well as more easily get urgent consultations with doctors.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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