Bill affects rural broadband use

DENVER — With the 2013 session ending a week from today, state lawmakers have introduced a controversial measure that would cut in half a special fund designed to bring basic phone service to hard-to-reach areas of the state.

At the same time, SB287, would divert funding to companies that bring broadband service to those same areas.

The measure, introduced by rural lawmakers of both parties, could be heard in the Senate State, Veterans & Military Committee as early as today.

“People who live in or near metropolitan areas may take for granted they can quickly get online and conduct their business, but in rural parts of the state, high speed Internet access can be hard to come by,” said Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, one of the bill’s sponsors. “This investment will allow rural Colorado businesses to work more efficiently, improve business opportunities, make it easier for people to seek online education and connect with loved ones.”

The measure is similar to a bill killed in a Senate committee last year after facing stiff opposition from telecommunications providers, who said it would prevent them from providing basic telephone service to rural customers.

The bill comes on the heels of a recent Colorado Public Utilities Commission decision late last year to phase out the state’s high-cost fund, which is used to reimburse providers who provide service in hard-to-reach areas, most of which are on the Western Slope. Rep. Don Coram is listed as a co-sponsor of this year’s bill, but the Montrose Republican said Tuesday he’s not sure he’ll remain so.

Coram said his goal is to improve broadband access to rural Colorado, but he is now uncertain if the bill actually will do that. As drafted, the bill would allocate a portion of the $54 million fund toward laying the infrastructure for broadband lines, with the ultimate goal of diverting half that amount each year to broadband. The fund comes from a 2.9 percent surcharge on all telephone users.

“It depends on what the Senate does with the bill,” Coram said. “What you sign onto and what you get are sometimes totally different. The goal is to improve broadband so we’ll see if this does that.”


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