A House panel on Tuesday advanced a $75 million proposal to build out the state’s broadband infrastructure, the largest state stimulus bill to begin working through the legislative process so far.
House Bill 21-1289 from Reps. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, and Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, divvies up the appropriation by sending:
- $35 million through the Broadband Deployment Board at the state Department of Regulatory Affairs for so-called “last mile” projects that aim to link telecommunication networks to users’ homes;
- $5 million to the Interconnectivity Grant Program Fund in the Department of Local Affairs to fund so-called “middle mile” projects linking the last mile to a telecommunication network operator’s core network;
- $10 million to both the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribal nations, who have broad discretion on how the funds can be used to build out broadband infrastructure;
- and $15 million to boost connectivity for telehealth providers.
The bill also formally codifies the Colorado Broadband Office, which was created by executive order by former Gov. John Hickenlooper and has since been operating under the Colorado Governor's Office of Information Technology. Kennedy told the House Transportation and Local Government Committee he and Baisley wanted to create a formal structure for that office to “make sure that all these different funds are coordinating with each other.”
“If there's a local government project here and an industry project here, they should know what's going on, make sure that all of those are going into the mapping process that they have and then giving an opportunity for facilitating these conversations about where the highest priority projects are in the future,” Kennedy said.
Though the bill eventually cleared the committee on a bipartisan 9-1 vote, several members of the panel expressed concerns with the direction of money, particularly with the amount dedicated toward middle mile projects.
According to Kate Sneed, OIT’s legislative liaison, the bill’s sponsors and stakeholders settled on that number after an “interesting game of moving parts” conducted after learning local governments were in line for a large chunk of federal stimulus dollars for broadband deployment.
“We've rearranged some things based on the knowledge that we will be getting, or expectation that we will be getting, significant money to local governments for the middle mile aspect,” she said.
The $5 million for middle mile projects is set to replace the standard amount DOLA would dole out through the grant program. The agency’s legislative liaison, Bruce Eisenhower, indicated the program has been running since 2013 but DOLA was not planning to dedicate any money to the grant program this year due to a lack of revenue.
Overall, Eisenhower said DOLA has released just under $30 million in grant funds to local governments for middle mile projects. Those grants generated more than $65 million in spending on broadband expansion when factoring in the local match accompanying those grants and a total of 147 miles of fiber built, Eisenhower said.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed concern with the matching provision. Rep. Donald Valdez, D-La Jara, indicated rural communities are “trying to find a balance with the funding aspect” in the wake of the pandemic.
“I just see and continue to see some of the low-income counties in our state continue to be left behind,” he said.
Eisenhower countered that his agency had learned in the course of administering the program that “any participation at all brings that buy-in, that commitment from the local government to see it through.”
“If it’s funded entirely, it doesn't have that sort of buy-in and commitment to get it done and bring the best product forth for their community, so we feel it's very important, whether it's a smaller amount or 50% or more, that the local government does have buy-in,” he said.
Rep. Marc Catlin said he understood the need for buy-in from locals but highlighted that “these folks are having trouble paying a lot of the bills they've got anyway.”
“It seems like we're putting a barrier in front of some of these communities that may be of the most need,” the Montrose Republican said.
And that need is dire, according to Miriam Gillow-Wiles of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments. She also said she would like to see an increase in funding for middle mile projects and highlighted overall need in some regions of the state.
According to Gillow-Wiles, a study conducted by Montezuma County estimated the cost to provide broadband service to all 25,000 of the county's residence came in around $100 million.
Kennedy acknowledged the state’s “tremendous amount of unmet need,” noting that the dollars in the bill wouldn’t cover all of Montezuma County’s need, never mind the whole state.
“So what you're seeing here is us attempting to balance those needs: give some money for last mile, some for middle mile, some for telehealth and some to the Ute Nations to try to move the ball forward,” he said. “We've done our best to balance those interests and advocate for the dollars in the places we believe there are the greatest needs.”
Ultimately, each member of the panel present for the hearing backed the bill except Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican. The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.