Colorado has awarded $826.5 million from the Biden administration to get decent broadband for all

A year-long effort by the Colorado Broadband Office to analyze which households in the state have adequate Internet and which don’t pay off big on Monday when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration awarded Colorado $826.5 million to build better broadband infrastructure.

The amount, said Brandy Reitter, executive director of the state Broadband Office, was much higher than she had anticipated.

Cell phone and rural broadband towers in downtown, Saguache County, Colorado with the Sangre de Cristos in the distance. January 22, 2021. (Special for Colorado Sun John McEvoy)

I’ve given people estimates over the last 12 months that could be $400 million to $700 million. But we got $826 million, she said. It was a big swing, but we definitely knocked it out of the park.

The funding comes from the infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021. More specifically, the bill allocated $42.5 billion for the broadband equity, access and delivery program known as BEAD. While each state would receive $100 million to improve its broadband access, the remaining money was up for grabs based on unserved or underserved communities within a state. Underserved households are those with Internet service of less than 100 megabits per second down and 20 Mbps up, which is much faster than the old federal definition of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.

But states had to put together a plan and apply.

Reitters’ team spent countless hours correcting national broadband maps for Colorado which often showed adequate service even though the speeds were much slower than advertised or the service was too expensive. Residents could also file fixes for their homes. Between state and public inputs, the majority of the 15,000 challenges presented were accepted by federal officials.

A joint press release Monday by Colorado’s two US senators and Governor Jared Polis highlighted the work done so far. But, Polis said, there is still room for improvement.

Here in Colorado, we continue to make bold progress toward our goal of connecting 99 percent of Colorado households to affordable high-speed broadband by 2027, and we welcome the federal support needed to help connect more Coloradans” he said in a statement.

It was difficult for the state to get to 99% even with previous federal funding. Private companies received federal money to build the Internet lines, but like any business, they focused on rural communities with customers. Areas where families are further apart have become too expensive to build a service.

With the new funding plus other funds from other federal sources and the state, Reitter believes it could be enough to finally put Colorado up to speed.

Our numbers are better than they were (last year), and I think it has to do with our current premiums, he said. We are looking at the 10% of Coloradans who lack adequate access to the Internet, which represents 190,000 households.

Colorado Broadband Office’s new executive director Brandy Reitter works from her office in Eagle, Nov. 1, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

As for the higher-than-expected amount, Reitter didn’t know why, but theorized that it likely had to do with the cost of building the internet for rural Colorado communities, which means across rocks and mountains. He still doesn’t know for sure how Colorado was judged.

It was probably a number of reasons, but my gut told me the high cost had a lot to do with it, too, she said.

The NTIA awarded 19 states more than $1 billion each for broadband infrastructure with Texas getting the largest amount at $3.3 billion. Colorado was near center, landing 22nd highest. All states need to get their plans together for how they will use their share.

Colorado plans to announce more details on July 6. The Broadband Office will likely provide grants to communities and work with private Internet providers to match funds and develop the service. He expects the five-year plan to be made public by August.

The funds will go to deploy (for) the physical infrastructure and are working to support ISPs, local governments, tribal governments (and) cooperatives, he said. We’re trying to support community anchor institutions and their plans for the broadband, digital equality side of things, that’s still a huge focus for us. We have a separate funding bucket, which is the state’s Digital Equity Act, so we’ll distribute that money to sub-beneficiaries. But wherever we can complement these efforts and make our dollars go further, we will.

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