Western Slope broadband viewed as critical

More questions than answers were raised Thursday at a Club 20 conference on the state of broadband services on the Western Slope.

Participants of Club 20’s Building Toward Broadband for Colorado Conference learned what some of the issues and stumbling blocks are surrounding adequate Internet services in the region.

But few came away with a clear plan on how to address it.

“I don’t think we can solve this problem by guessing at the problem, and I think that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for a long time,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. “With today’s technology, with GPS, we should be able to map every area that we have service, and create a map that we can work from. Until we do that, we’ll just continue to kick the can down the road.”

The conference was intended to educate Club 20 members what the real problems are in providing broadband services, and start a dialogue about what should be done to improve it.

Improving that service is considering a key economic development issue for many.

Most of the stumbling blocks to that improved service center on the region’s rural nature and its rugged geography. High mountain passes make it difficult to lay fiber-optic or coaxial cable lines to some parts of the state, panel experts said.

Part of the discussion also centered on whether the state should continue to provide state subsidies to providers that serve hard-to-reach areas of the state, and instead invest that money into building out its broadband infrastructure.

Currently, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission is considering doing away with at least some of those subsidies in areas of the state that have ample competition. Trouble is, that regulatory agency’s authority is limited to voice service only, not broadband Internet service.

So, some are concerned the PUC will come to wrong conclusions based on inaccurate data.

Current broadband maps, for example, show the Grand Valley as having ample competition between landline services and satellite and wireless coverage, but that’s not necessarily the case, said Bonnie Petersen, Club 20 executive director.

“I will tell you there are places in Grand Junction where the only place I can get voice service is through my wire line with CenturyLink,” Petersen said. “The cell service is not robust enough to act as a competitive service.”

The conference ended with a panel discussion with Coram, Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and Rep.-elect Jared Wright, R-Fruita, who all vowed to follow the matter when the Legislature convenes in January, and help find a solution.

“It’s important that we balance the issues of fairness with the issues of our geographic region being different and more challenging than that on the Front Range,” Wright said. “As we look at the government’s role in this, it’s going to continue to be an important piece of the debate.”


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