Measure aims to help boost rural broadband

Lawmaker's bill would let counties create improvement districts

DENVER — Rep. Jim Wilson is hoping he’s found an easy way to help rural parts of the state bring broadband to hard-to-reach areas of Colorado.

The Salida Republican got the Colorado House on Tuesday to give preliminary approval to a measure that would allow rural counties to create local improvement districts to raise money to pay for fiber optic lines.

The measure, HB1174, would allow the districts to assess a fee on homeowners and businesses that agree to be in them to pay off bonds meant to finance laying fiber optic cables for internet service.

“This allows them, if they want to put up the money, to connect to existing internet services to improve their broadband service,” Wilson said. “Right now, it’s not profitable for the larger telecommunications companies to do that. We don’t have a vehicle to do that, but with this bill we do.”

Part of the reason why remote areas of the state don’t have proper connectivity is the high cost of laying the necessary cable lines for broadband, and an unwillingness by telecommunications companies to invest in it, Wilson said.

Under the bill, homeowners and businesses in remote areas that agree to be in a district would pay a special assessment. Money from those assessments would be used to pay off bonds that would be issued to finance infrastructure projects, but only if the districts already have worked out agreements with actual internet providers.

When the bill won unanimous approval in the House Business Affairs & Labor Committee earlier this month, Park County Commissioner Mike Brazell said he got the idea for the improvement districts after the county brought broadband to the isolated town of Guffey.

He said the county did a survey of its residents about 15 years ago about the 35 most important issues facing them. Broadband was last.

“Now it appears as number two,” he said. “That’s how fast this segment of this industry has grown.”

At the same hearing, Eric Bergman, policy director for Colorado Counties Inc., said the bill isn’t a panacea to solving the problem of bringing broadband to all parts of the state, but could help bring it to select areas that have little hope of getting it otherwise.

Though he didn’t say where, Mike Nelson of Comcast Colorado said there’s a rural community in the state already talking to that telecommunications provider about the improvement district idea.

The bill requires a final House vote before it can head to the Senate for more debate.


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