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CenturyLink Gigabit One Of Many Efforts To Boost Colorado Broadband

Jim Hill

Google Fiber, move over. With CenturyLink's Tuesday announcement that it would bring ultrafast broadband Internet to Denver, businesses and residents in the Mile High City will have the opportunity access the internet at speeds at up to 1 gigabit per second.

But Denver is not the only Colorado city with the option to go superfast online. From the rural to the Front Range, efforts to improve Internet access are spread across the state.

On August 4, TCS Communications began building the first phase of a fiber optic loop in Longmont. This project out is part of a 6-phase effort to install fiber optic infrastructure in the town, making Longmont a "gigabit city."

For Longmont, gaining that authority took the support of its citizens, who were required by state law to get resident approval to provide Internet service. After losing a 2009 skirmish with Internet providers that opposed the effort, the city gained voter approval in 2011. Voters approved funding to build the network in 2013.

The fact that Colorado municipalities must gain voter approval to offer their own internet comes from 2005 state law that was passed with cable industry support, making it harder for cities to use their fiber optic cable to offer locals Internet.

According to a Washington Post piece,

…cities that want to use their fiber optic cables to provide Internet service must get the approval of its residents before doing so. The rule effectively forbids local governments from managing their own property.

Now, the city of Boulder will likely also seek voter approval to use its fiber optic cables to offer extremely high speed Web access.

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce outlined the benefits of such high-speed access in a letter to the City Council:

"The Boulder economy depends on the success of businesses and organizations that need and value fast broadband: not only technology companies and scientific organizations, but also design firms, creative industries, and educational institutions," the Chamber wrote.

Fort Collins is also exploring various options to improve Internet speed, including building a fiber optic network or contracting with an existing ISP to improve access and connectivity.

Rural Access Far From Speedy

In other, more rural parts of the state, access to reliable internet – let alone high speed – continues to be problematic. This can hurt local businesses and prevent rural communities from gaining access to the knowledge economy.

Solar Energy International, a solar education nonprofit with offices in the Western Slope towns of Carbondale and Paonia once resorted to driving video files between its two locations because upload speeds from Paonia were so slow. They got tired of the drive, but service hasn't improved, so they use Fed Ex to ship the files now.

The Economic Development office of Delta County, where Paonia sits, is working to improve high-speed Internet access in the region. They hope to partner with the local rural electric coop to create faster access in the rural county.

On the state's Eastern Plains, a lack of broadband has stymied farmers wanting to use high-tech tools for agriculture.

Credit Broadbandmap.gov
Areas of the United States with 3-6 Mbps advertised download speed shown in blue. Much of Colorado lacks even these speeds.

In Northern Colorado, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments is looking for a way forward to improve broadband access for its member counties. In a study [.PDF] of regional broadband, they found "the free market is failing to meet the needs of the marketplace," and that government involvement could improve Internet access in the region. The study also noted that Colorado is in the middle range of all U.S. states when it comes to download speeds.

This year, Colorado legislators passed a set of bills designed at improving access to rural broadband, which included a tax incentive for companies investing in rural broadband and creating a fund to extend broadband to underserved parts of the state.

To date, though, despite the many studies and plans to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas, efforts continue to struggle.

A recent federally-backed effort to bring high speed Internet to Colorado schools, EAGLE-Net, has been criticized for wasting money and failing to reach areas that really need the service.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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