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la plata county
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Colorado has long been home to some of the most innovative municipal broadband projects in the country. That trend has only accelerated with last year’s voter-approved elimination of municipal broadband restrictions, and it’s now being buoyed by a massive new wave of state grants that should further expand affordable broadband to long-neglected parts of the state.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis recently announced the first of multiple broadband investments using stimulus funding from the U.S. Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund (CPF) program. The CPF is funded by $10 billion made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and is a key part of the state’s goal to bring affordable broadband to 99 percent of Colorado residents by 2027.
According to the Governor’s office, the state just authorized $113 million in CPF funds on 13 projects that will bring fiber service to nearly 19,000 homes and businesses across Colorado. State officials say the funding will be heavily focused on projects in the South and Southwest portion of the Centennial State, where connectivity needs are greatest.
The Colorado Broadband Office says it received 112 applications asking for more than $642 million in broadband funding across the state–five times greater than the allotted awards.
Last fall, Durango joined a number of other Colorado communities that voted to reclaim local telecommunications authority. This January, the city began using its fiber resources to partner with a private provider and offer free Wi-Fi along the downtown corridor.
The move is one step in the city's plan to optimize use of its fiber resources. At the moment, Wi-Fi appears to be the center point of that plan, with special attention focused on increasing competition so residents and businesses will benefit with lower prices and more choice. From a January article in the Durango Herald:
Some rural residents with slow Internet also should have more service options by the end of the year, courtesy of CenturyLink, SkyWerx, AlignTec and BrainStorm.
“A lot of people are working on it. ... In certain geographies we’re going to see overlapping solutions,” said Roger Zalneraitis, director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
Durango has leased dark fiber for over 20 years and operates its own I-Net for municipal and La Plate County facilities. The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments (SWCCOG) has been developing an open access regional fiber network since 2010, funded through local communities and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. The SWCCOG is now working with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance to determine if and where there are gaps in the fiber network.
Due to the expense of fiber optic lines, the difficult topography, and the remote locations of some La Plata county residents, community leaders are looking at microwave wireless as a way to deliver Internet access to a number of people.
Local video on the Wi-Fi install:
This November 3rd, more than ten communities in Colorado will attempt to escape the local-authority-revoking effects of SB 152 by overriding its restrictions at the polls: Archuleta County, Bayfield, Boulder Valley School District, Durango, Fort Collins, Ignacio, La Plata County, Loveland, Moffat County, Pitkin County, San Juan County, and Silverton.
Many of these communities participated in a $4.1 million fiber infrastructure project which currently provides public entities (municipal buildings, libraries, and schools) with cheap, plentiful Internet access. To determine how to better utilize that existing fiber infrastructure, the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments received a $75,000 regional planning grant. The 10 year old law in question, SB 152, prevents local governments from taking full advantage of local fiber assets by removing local authority to offer any services that compete with incumbents; voters must reclaim that authority through a referendum.
Under the restrictions, localities cannot partner with local ISPs to provide high-speed Internet to community members via publicly owned infrastructure or create municipal FTTH networks. Local government entities must also be careful to not lease too much fiber or risk running afoul of the law. Statewide organizations have worked to amend the law, but without success:
“It’s an obnoxious law that was passed by the industry to protect their monopoly,” said Geoff Wilson, general counsel for the Colorado Municipal League.
The league tried to get the law amended during the 2015 legislative session after hearing from communities across the state about how it was blocking them from improving Internet access for residents.
“The law is designed to protect the provider of inferior service from the local government doing anything about it,” he said.