A recently enacted state law could help ensure that faster internet service reaches customers when companies apply for state grants to fund infrastructure.
The Colorado Legislature set aside $115 million to support rural broadband development from 2019 until 2023, and House Bill 18-1099 was written to hold large companies that receive the grants more accountable.
The bill went into effect last week and was inspired by CenturyLink’s failure to meet the expectations of residents in Ridgway, said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, who sponsored the bill.
Last year, a state grant was awarded to a small company to bring fiber-optic internet service to the town, according Colorado Counties Inc. But CenturyLink was able to legally take the grant under a state law that gives large companies providing internet in rural areas the right of first refusal on grants from the state’s broadband deployment fund.
CenturyLink used the money to put in new DSL in Ridgway, which was not nearly as fast as the service the other company promised.
“Everybody just went bananas. It was just like bait-and-switch. ... We wanted to prevent this from ever happening again,” said Eric Bergman, policy director with Colorado Counties Inc. The nonprofit lobbied for the change in the law.
Under the new law, if a large existing company takes a grant under right of first refusal it must provide internet services at the speed and price the smaller company promised.
“It adds that little level of competition between a smaller company and CenturyLink,” McLachlan said.
In 2017, the state’s broadband fund awarded two grants to smaller Southwest Colorado companies.
ForeThought received $268,500 to improve service at Cascade Village, and AlignTec received $592,729 to improve service to an area northeast of Bayfield, according to the Department of Regulatory Agencies.
Other areas in the region, such as the Lightner Creek area, could benefit from additional infrastructure, said Miriam Gillow-Wiles, the executive director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.
The state has budgeted $18.7 million for rural broadband grants in 2019, and it has set aside more that $20 million each year until 2023.