LOVELAND Expanding affordable high-speed Internet access across the country could be as transformative as electrification and the interstate highway system, federal, state and local officials said Thursday during a celebration of more than 826 million dollars in federal funds that will help expand broadband in Colorado over the next three years.
The funding is part of the total $42.45 billion provided in Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s BRIDGE Act-based federal Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, which was incorporated into the bipartisan federal infrastructure law.
The money will go to government agencies, libraries, workforce centers, community colleges, nonprofits, and others to expand fiber-optic broadband, provide affordable access, and train the next generation of broadband workers.
Larimer County hopes to tap those funds to expand fiber optic broadband to those Larimer County locations that are considered underserved or underserved by high-speed Internet. Of the approximately 190,000 Coloradans who are underserved or underserved, 24 percent are in Larimer County.
“Larimer County is an example of where we need to do better,” Governor Jared Polis said, noting that many of the county’s underserved or underserved areas are also hit hard by wildfires where residents, businesses and first responders need connectivity for essential communication services.
Larimer County voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved a measure that allows the county to explore expanding broadband services. Individual communities such as Fort Collins, Loveland and Estes Park have started their own broadband services that Larimer County hopes to lean on.
Gov. Jared Polis last year signed an executive order directing the Colorado Broadband Office to develop a plan to connect 99 percent of Colorado’s households to high-speed Internet by 2027.
According to the Colorado Broadband Office, 90.6 percent of Larimer County locations are served by Internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads, compared to 88.8 percent overall the state. More than 99% of Fort Collins and Loveland locations are serviced, and at much faster speeds.
Brandy Reitter, executive director of the CBO, said her office will prioritize funding for projects that remove infrastructure adoption barriers to expand a fiber-optic network and deliver digital equity, “making sure people know how to use internet and have the devices they need to connect,” he said after an hour-long celebration at The Forge innovation center in Loveland.
Larimer County and other municipalities will be required to submit grant proposals to align that funding with projects, said Mark Pfaffinger, county chief information officer.
“We are still awaiting funding notification and grant process rules to determine which projects we propose,” Pfaffinger said.
The county’s 2021 Broadband Strategic Plan identifies $350 million in projects needed to bring fiber-optic broadband to all of unincorporated Larimer County. Realistically, the county could spend between $250 million and $275 million and serve the majority of residents, Pfaffinger told the Coloradoan in June. Some areas of the county are simply too remote and too expensive to carry fiber optic connections.
The United States has spent $50 billion in the past to “supposedly get broadband to areas that need it most, but in reality they’ve been subsidizing telecom companies not to build that broadband, and that’s what we’ve been trying to change with the BRIDGE Act,” Bennett said.
Many communities in our state and across the country have become trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide with the internet too slow and the internet too expensive to be of any use to them in the 21st century, Bennett said.
When the pandemic hit, families struggled with slow networks that couldn’t accommodate working-at-home parents and children learning remotely.
“Doctors having trouble reaching patients, kids doing homework in the Walmart parking lot because we didn’t have broadband in so many homes, this was an American tragedy,” Bennett said.
“This is no different than imagining our country accepting that some schoolchildren in some school districts may have access to textbooks and that children in other school districts may not have access to textbooks,” he said. “When you talk about the 21st century and the digital divide, that’s the extent of the kind of injustice that has existed.”
“As a result of the BEAD funding, more students will have fast, available Internet at home, more Coloradans will be able to access telehealth and avoid the long drive across the mountains to see a doctor…more small businesses, in every part of our state can bring their operations online and connect their businesses around the world,” said Bennett.
“We can build the digital infrastructure we need in America to compete with China.”
Past generations electrified every home in America and built the interstate highway system that has laid the foundation for economic growth for generations, Bennett said.
“If we get to this moment, our children and grandchildren will look back 30 or 60 years from now and say the same thing about our decision to ensure that every American, no matter where they live, has access to affordable high-speed services. broadband. These funds will change the destiny of our country, and it all started here in Colorado.”
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