Legislature takes aim at CenturyLink foot-dragging
DENVER — Several state lawmakers didn’t mince their words Tuesday when talking about telecommunications provider CenturyLink and problems with bringing high-speed internet services to rural parts of Colorado.
In short, the lawmakers accused CenturyLink of years of stonewalling efforts to boost broadband in the state, preferring to protect a million-dollar subsidy it receives over telephone services.
“Everything on broadband gets captured by a single entity who has a particular interest in their own subsidy, and that’s not how we should be governing here in Colorado,” said House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, in arguing for Senate Bill 306. “We should be governing for the people of Colorado, and what they are asking from us year after year is shifting money from the high-cost support fund over to the broadband fund so they could get rural broadband.”
In 2014, the Colorado Legislature approved a bill calling for the gradual phase-out of the high-cost fund, created decades ago to help pay infrastructure costs to bring telephone services to hard-to-reach areas of the state.
Under that law, money from the fund — which all phone users pay through a nominal fee — goes into the broadband fund to do the same thing for internet services that has been virtually accomplished with landline telephone service.
But lawsuits and other delays have prevented very many dollars from going into the broadband fund.
The bill that won final approval in the House on Tuesday would force ending the high cost fund in seven years. Later Tuesday, the Senate rejected that change, forcing the bill to a conference committee between the two chambers to iron out differences in the bill.
“The time of the high-cost fund is gone,” said Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, who with Becker got an amendment onto the bill to force the issue.
“I have attended numerous meetings with (CenturyLink) on the West Slope … and all I seem to get is somewhat of a circular argument. It’s always some problem. They need more customers before they can do the second mile. They need to make sure they can make a profit from the third mile,” Willett added. “Guess what folks, three years I’ve been here, nothing’s gotten done.”
Mark Soltes, CenturyLink assistant vice president for policy and government affairs, said his company is committed to discussing the matter, but said that adding an amendment at the end of the session isn’t a good way to legislate.
“Based on the sheer number of rural customers we serve, CenturyLink invests more per broadband and voice customer each year than any other provider in Colorado,” Soltes said. “Given this fact, we certainly agree with (Becker) that rural broadband is a priority.”
Over the years, numerous state lawmakers have tried various things to get CenturyLink — which as the state’s largest telephone service company has been designated the provider of last resort as a result — to install the necessary infrastructure to bring broadband services to all parts of the state.
Each year, that doesn’t happen, in part because of the high cost of doing so, leading some local communities such as Rio Blanco County and the Delta-Montrose Rural Electric Association to do it themselves.
Lawmakers said rural broadband delivery hasn’t happened because CenturyLink won’t spend the money.
Opponents of the bill said it was being rushed through the process without a full discussion from stakeholders.
“A lot of what we’ve done regarding broadband at the end of the session are major policy changes from the 2014 legislation that took years to develop, and here we are, without stakeholder consensus,” said Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Parker. “Rushing something through without a comprehensive stakeholder process is not the way to fix this issue.”
Supporters say that’s poppycock. They say the issue has been discussed to death, and it’s CenturyLink that’s refused to budge on any compromise.
“This is enough,” shouted Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan. “This isn’t a last-minute deal that was put together last night. This has been coming for years. I am tired of it being blocked and stopped.”
Along with the bill was a change to the state’s budget that called for moving $9.5 million from the high cost fund and transferring it into the broadband fund. Currently, it only has about $2 million, and that was moved into the fund only earlier this year.
Today is the last day the bill can be worked on because, by law, the Legislature must adjourn by midnight.
“You don’t have to be lonely at Farmers Only dot com,” sang Rep. Phil Covarrubias, R-Brighton, referring to a commercial tune for an online dating site, in support of the bill. “Now how are farmers going to get a date if they don’t have broadband out in the rural areas? I’m just saying.”