By TAMARA CHUANG / THE COLORADO SUN
One look at Colorado’s official broadband map and Bernadette Cuthair of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe will tell you it’s wrong.
This story was originally published in the Colorado Sun
As the tribe’s director of planning & development, Cuthair has been working to help her community access faster internet service. But the current broadband map makes it seem like the southwestern town of Towaoc, the base for the tribe, doesn’t need help. The map shows most of the town already has federally adequate speeds of 25 megabits or faster.
Not quite, she said.
“We have a very slow speed,” Cuthair said. “In many cases, the provider’s actually providing 3-megabits (download) and 500 kilobits (upload) for services according to their own website. … The southwest Colorado region could benefit from more redundancy of services and options.”
It’s a sore topic that Ute Mountain Utes and other tribal communities have dealt with for years. Cuthair said the community also has had to contend with outsider companies applying for grants to serve the region “without the consent, authorization or tribal consultation.”
But she’s feeling more hopeful now that the state legislature passed House Bill 1298, which, among many changes to the state’s broadband programs, set aside $20 million for the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes for broadband infrastructure. The measure awaits Gov. Jared Polis’ signature.
“That was good news to our ears,” Cuthair said, adding that state officials assured her that they won’t let someone else slip in and apply for the reserved broadband funds.
The Funding for Broadband Deployment bill is expected to get the state to 100% rural broadband coverage, a goal set in 2017 by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, when rural internet coverage was at 70%. The Colorado Broadband Office, created in the same year, has helped ratchet coverage to 91% by promoting grants from two state agencies to private internet providers and municipalities to build better service. Several projects are underway, including a new one on the Eastern Plains that will provide fiber gigabit to more than 50,000 homes and businesses.
The goal now is to increase coverage each year, said Antonio Martinez, who was named executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office in February.
“Dynamically, we’re probably growing broadband nationwide and in Colorado and in rural Colorado at a higher rate than we have in the past,” Martinez said. “If nothing less, I think COVID-19 really emphasized to all of our leadership that we needed to have access for education, for health care and for basic communications purposes, public safety. … I don’t think there’s something slowing (us) down. If anything, Colorado continues to lead the way and move forward and is moving forward very aggressively.”
By comparison, a 2020 FCC report on the state of America’s broadband access puts the number of rural Americans who cannot get 25 mbps down/3 mbps up speeds via terrestrial broadband at 77.7%. For Americans in tribal lands, access drops to 72.3%.
Inaccurate data and tribal concerns
But even Martinez, a native of San Luis Valley, realizes the state broadband map may not be 100% accurate. The office uses speed test data (test yours here to share with the state) and his staff surveys internet providers twice a year. But ISP participation is voluntary, so data is imprecise.
Built into the pending legislation, he said, is a requirement to get better data, especially GIS data, short for geographic information systems.
“We’re going to require more data map accuracy to our GIS and mapping team so we have a better understanding of being able to tell the people in Colorado, where service is good and where it’s lacking and where we need to make improvements,” he said.
Martinez left Colorado for the Air Force after attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and later went to Washington, D.C., where he worked for several federal agencies, including as a U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Director and a director in the State Department. He came home last year and has a ranch in the San Luis Valley. His ranch has OK internet service.
“There’s fiber to the central office in the town and then the town stretches for about three-quarters of a mile radius,” he said. “I live on a ranch a little farther from town. There’s no fiber capability at all.”
He relies on mobile internet that “is not 5G, but it’s fast enough.”
While San Luis Valley still has areas with slow to no internet coverage, Martinez said a prime area of his focus is the southwest part of the state where the Ute tribes live. He’s been talking to Cuthair to make sure they’re applying for public grants and to see what support his team can offer now that the tribes are considering building the infrastructure themselves.
“Wolf Creek Pass, running into Pagosa, Durango, Ignacio where a lot of our tribal lands are – I find that to be the area that would be the largest focus for all of us right now,” he said. “We’re working with a couple different firms to try to increase capacity and try to make sure that the tribes have better access to internet and mobile and wireless and fast mobile wireless.”
One of the larger internet providers in southwest Colorado is Lumen, previously known as CenturyLink. The company said it offers 60 mbps but primarily in Cortez, and has some service in Towaoc, the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
But rural areas are tough because the cost of building infrastructure and maintenance isn’t affordable in sparsely populated areas, said Danielle Spears, a Lumen spokeswoman in an email.
“We believe that as policymakers look to make additional investments in internet infrastructure, broadband markets and consumers greatly benefit from innovation, which private sector providers have proven to be better positioned and more motivated to deliver over time,” she said. “We do not believe programs that favor government-owned networks are in the best interest of consumers or taxpayers.”
Cuthair, with the Ute Mountain Utes, has been working with consultants at NEO Connect to put together a broadband plan for her tribe. In it, they identified $23 million shovel-ready projects to do things like provide backup wireless connections to the White Mesa education building and fiber to 534 homes and 146 businesses in Towaoc and on up to Cortez. The tribe has about 2,000 members in Colorado and Utah.
“But the problem has been here for quite a while that we don’t have the speeds and, of course, our students during COVID, they’re out there sitting in their cars (near a public hotspot) with their laptops trying to do their work, even in the wintertime,” said Cuthair, who said it’s been near impossible to have Zoom calls during the pandemic unless she stops the video. “We’re sitting in an area out here in the very southwest corner of Colorado where it’s very isolated. We don’t have that infrastructure … Some places (have) absolutely nothing.”
The pending measure sets aside $35 million from the federal American Rescue Plan for a new Digital Inclusion Grant Program, which reserves $20 million for the two Ute tribes to pay for infrastructure. Another $15 million is for telehealth services available to providers statewide.
An additional $35 million was allocated for grants for private internet services while $5 million is for local governments to offset the cost of building broadband infrastructure.
House Bill 1109, which also awaits Polis’ signature, moves the board that vets grant requests for last-mile projects from local ISPs to the Office of Information Technology, where the Colorado Broadband Office is. The bill also directs the board to focus on grants that help the most “critically unserved” areas.
Keeping broadband local
The importance of collecting accurate data is that federal funding is associated with how many unserved households are in a community. But sometimes, the actual internet offered in rural neighborhoods is subpar or too expensive, even if a map shows residents have speeds of at least 25 mbps down and 3 mbps up, which is the FCC’s guideline.
Late last year, the FCC awarded $39.7 million to SpaceX subsidiary Starlink to provide satellite internet service to 19,000 households or businesses in Mesa, Rio Blanco and other western Colorado counties as part of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Starlink, expected to be widely available later this year, costs $499 for the equipment plus a $99 monthly service charge. Speeds are reportedly 100 mbps down, 20 mbps up.
Some local ISPs complained that when federal dollars go to out-of-state companies, rural Coloradans don’t get access to faster fiber internet. Other out-of-state FCC award winners bid so low on Colorado projects, there’s skepticism they’ll actually deliver.
“My concern is that broadband is local,” Teresa Ferguson, the Colorado Broadband Office’s director of Federal Broadband Engagement, said after the FCC awards were announced in December. “It’s a local issue and the results of the Connect America Fund — the last auction that the FCC engaged in — left a lot of areas of Colorado with 10 megabits down, 1 megabit up service. For millions of dollars. I worry that history could repeat itself here.”
In the recent FCC auction where Starlink won a swath of western Colorado, a group of rural electric coops outside of the state also scored federal funds to build fiber internet in parts of Montezuma County and Towoac. The Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium, made up of dozens of rural electric coops outside of Colorado, was formed by Kansas City-based Conexon, which got its start helping co-ops construct fiber internet in their communities.
But after winning the bid, Conexon heard from the tribes and how building broadband could interfere with the tribes’ own broadband projects.
“In consideration of those concerns, and in an effort not to hinder the tribes’ plans, Conexon Connect has notified the Federal Communications Commission that it is willing to forgo the bids it won within these tribal lands. We are awaiting the FCC’s decision on that filing,” a Conexon spokesperson said.
Eastern Plains getting gigabit internet in 2022
But Conexon appears to be making sure it does have feet on the ground in Colorado. The consortium also won federal funding for 510 households and businesses on the eastern side of Colorado Springs and north to Limon — despite not having a Colorado co-op. But before the awards were announced, Conexon was in talks with Limon-based Mountain View Electric Association to partner on internet service. Mountain View’s territory was in the same area.
Conexon’s federal award for eastern Colorado, however, wound up being so low, it amounts to about $100,000 a year in federal funding. That wasn’t enough to build gigabit internet service for Mountain View’s 51,000 rural customers, which translates to about 135,000 people.
Mountain View decided to move forward anyway. The $190 million project is estimated to take six years to construct with the first houses getting lit as early as April 2022. And it’s still partnering with Conexon, which is providing design, management and service to customers.
“Before, it never penciled out. A broadband provider would approach Mountain View, but the economics wouldn’t work. Since we’re a not-for-profit, and the members own the infrastructure and the assets of the cooperative, we had to make sure that we did this in a fiscally responsible way,” said Amanda Hall, Mountain View’s administrative manager, who is overseeing the broadband project. “This relationship with Conexon and leasing them our excess capacity allows us to do that.”
“We’re doing this because there’s a need in our service territory for broadband and that’s enabling us to be able to look at a project like this and offer it to members,” Hall said. “Our density is less than three meters per mile. No for-profit entity wants to do that because they wouldn’t make any money. And so that’s why the electric cooperatives across the country — and there are about 850 of us — are really being looked at as a solution for getting broadband to rural America.”
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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.
This story was written in partnership with the Colorado Sun, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.