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Connecting rural areas to the grid

The Rural Broadband Push to Close Colorado’s Digital Divide

Colorado’s rural residents face a digital divide. When houses and buildings are widely scattered, so is the infrastructure designed to deliver internet data. The equipment needed for high-speed internet simply doesn’t exist in many rural areas.

Rural residents are offered slower, more expensive internet options than their urban counterparts.

Randy Reed noticed a difference when he found a new home near Bailey, a small community in Park County. The few internet service packages available to Randy in Bailey were slower and more expensive than the options in Denver. “The fastest is about 20 Mbps,” Reed said.

Internet speeds are measured in megabits per second (mbps). The Federal Communications Commission explains that moderate internet activities, such as watching streaming videos or playing games online, require speeds of 12 to 25 mbps. Households or businesses with multiple computers need more mbps to deliver video conferencing or fast downloads of applications.

Internet service at 25 Mpbs is considered high-speed for a typical household, delivering smooth video and loading web pages quickly on multiple computers.

“When we’re talking about broadband in rural areas, we have to talk about infrastructure. It’s the same thing for me as water pipes being past their life expectancies,” said Mallory Pillard, director of the Carnegie Public Library in Trinidad.

Pillard said residents from Trinidad and surrounding Las Animas County visit the library regularly to take advantage of internet access.

“Streaming is a big issue almost as soon as you get out of town,” said Pillard. She explained watching a single television episode on Netflix would be a challenge on a limited rural data plan.

In Colorado, the difference in internet speed availability between metropolitan and rural speeds is stark. In Front Range counties like Denver, Arapahoe, and Douglas, over 95% of residents can choose to subscribe to internet providers offering at least 25 mbps.

In Crowley County, only 1.8% of residents are offered similar internet speeds.

Even when high-speed internet access is available, the service costs more for rural subscribers.

In metro areas of Colorado, a basic internet package from a major provider like CenturyLink or Xfinity averages around $45 per month, with speeds up to 60 Mpbs.

Major services like CenturyLink don’t reach the eastern plains town of Kit Carson in Cheyenne County. Kit Carson residents can choose from a few internet providers, including Eastern Slope Rural Telephone Association.

Eastern Slope’s service area stretches from the town of Bennett in Adams County about 35 miles east of Denver, to Eads in Kiowa County east of Pueblo. In 2017, Eastern Slope undertook a project to expand fiber access to residents of towns like Bennett. They offer eastern Colorado residents plans starting around $40 monthly – but at speeds of only 4 Mpbs.

To get speeds of 12 Mbps, the threshold for medium service set by the FCC, Kit Carson residents would need to pay at least $90 per month. Speeds up to 60 Mpbs, like those available to urban Colorado internet users, simply aren’t available.

High-speed internet depends on an infrastructure of cables reaching each building that needs internet service. Almost every home and business is connected by copper telephone cables, which can provide internet access at slower dial-up speeds in a service called Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL.

Faster internet speeds can be delivered over more modern cables, like fiber optics – but the installation of new cables can be costly.

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Internet service companies prioritize installing new cables where they anticipate customers will subscribe to their services. Because urban areas have lots of potential customers, they get new cables faster.

Rural areas with few customers are less likely to receive new cables. Internet companies also pass on the cost of laying new cable to customers in a surcharge on their monthly bill. In rural areas where the cables are serving fewer people, the bill is proportionally higher – which explains why Reed would pay more for slower internet speeds in Bailey than in Denver.

Colorado aims to change that disparity with a bill signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper in April. The bill provides incentives for internet companies to expand broadband infrastructure to rural areas.

Faster internet speeds would change lives for rural Colorado residents, and homes aren’t the only places that benefit from faster internet speeds.

In rural areas, the nearest college could be over an hour away by car. Online classes offer a time-saving option – but only if internet speeds allow for speedy download of class materials.

Trinidad State Junior College has two campuses 100 miles apart from one another, covering eight rural Colorado counties.

While on campus, students have access to fast internet. “Speeds of more than 100 Mbps are the norm,” said Greg Boyce, Director of Communications for the Trinidad campus.

Not all students make it to campus. About 13% percent of Trinidad State’s students take at least one online class and another 8% take all of their classes online. At the Trinidad campus, 15 miles north of the New Mexico border, most off-campus students live in surrounding Las Animas County.

The town of Trinidad is well-served by internet providers. A 2017 report on broadband in southern central Colorado found that Trinidad residents could choose from CenturyLink, SECOM, or Comcast, and expect average speeds of 15.8 Mbps. Students from surrounding Las Animas County would find it more difficult to source home internet. In the small town of Aguilar, 22 miles north of Trinidad, average internet speeds are half that of those in Trinidad – just 7.4 Mbps – and SECOM is the only provider available.

The report, commissioned by the South Central Council of Governments, suggests that local governments can help their citizens access faster internet by exploring municipal fiber. This strategy was embraced by Colorado cities like Fort Collins, where the city is developing its own internet infrastructure as a public utility.

There’s just one barrier to other Colorado cities following along: state law.

Senate Bill 152 (SB 152), passed in 2005, prohibits Colorado cities from developing their own municipal internet networks. In order to develop the data networks needed for faster internets, each community has to vote to opt out of SB 152.

As Colorado communities look to bring their residents across the digital divide, more and more cities are voting to opt out. In November, voters in the town Fountain, just south of Colorado Springs, will decide on whether to opt out of SB 152, opening the door to explore municipal broadband.

Both of these legal options – the state bill incentivizing private companies, and the growing number of cities looking to have the option to develop their own local internet utility – move almost as slowly as dial-up internet. In the meantime, residents in rural Colorado wait.

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