Officials renew push for broadband links in rural school areas
Providing broadband Internet service to the most rural parts of the state, especially to small school districts, has long been a goal throughout Colorado. Those efforts have moved forward the past couple years, and could get a boost in the state Legislature this year.
Marcia Neal, who represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District on the state Board of Education, noted that the EAGLE-Net Alliance was awarded a $100.6 million federal stimulus grant in 2010 to build a broadband network for the state’s school districts, but its work has been controversial.
Meanwhile, legislation is expected to be introduced at the Colorado Capitol — perhaps this month — that would provide new money to help provide broadband services in rural parts of the state, said Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen.
“We have been working with Rep. Don Coram, Sen. Gail Schwartz and several others” from the Front Range to craft the bill, Petersen said. The expected legislation would use money from a high-cost telecommunications fund created in the 1990s to help bring voice telephone service to all parts of the state, and to deliver broadband service to isolated parts of the state.
The bill “will help,” Petersen said, “but it won’t deliver broadband overnight.”
The EAGLE-Net Alliance project has disappointed and angered many officials throughout the state. It required some $15 million in additional funds and has been delayed more than 17 months. It is expected to complete its work this year, although not all of the 178 school districts in Colorado have signed up for its service.
EAGLE-Net is an inter-governmental agency put together by a coalition of local school districts specifically to apply for the broadband project using stimulus money. Critics have argued that it doesn’t answer to any state or local governments. And rural telephone companies complain that it used federal money to compete against them.
Last September, the Colorado Legislative Audit Committee held hearings on the alliance, its spending and why it was so far behind schedule.
Neal said her biggest problem with EAGLE-Net was that it took on the easiest rural districts first, running fiber-optic cable to districts on the relatively flat Eastern Plains while leaving districts in difficult mountain areas initially unserved — places like Silverton, Dove Creek and the west end of Montrose County.
As recently as last week, the Dove Creek school district was still battling to get its broadband service turned on even though there is fiber-optic cable installed to the area, emails sent to Neal show.
Many have some sort of Internet service, whether dial-up or slower cable, Neal and Petersen said. But they need faster service to meet all of the new requirements of the state assessment laws, they said.