It may not have grown by much, but the percent of rural households with access to broadband services is inching up to being on par with urban areas of the state, the Colorado Office of Information Technology announced Tuesday.

That percentage grew by three percentage points over the winter months, from 83 percent to 86 percent, just six points from its years-long goal of 92 percent by next year, the office said.

Still, it has a ways to go to catch up with the statewide average of 95 percent.

"We are moving in the right direction to reach the June 2020 goal of providing 92 percent rural broadband access," said Anthony Neal-Graves, executive director of the office. "Over the next five years the state will be investing at least $115 million to achieve our ultimate goal of 100 percent household access."

Much of that money is coming from a new fund the Colorado Legislature shored up during last year's legislative session when it set in motion a plan to transfer all money from the High Cost Support Mechanism — created decades ago to fund telephonic infrastructure in rural and mountainous areas of the state — into a then poorly funded Broadband Deployment Fund.

That fund didn't have much money in it until the Legislature approved a sweeping new law last year to transfer about $30 million a year into it from the high-cost fund through 2023, eventually earmarking more than $115 million to help pay for rural broadband infrastructure projects.

During this year's session, the Legislature kicked in an additional $18.7 million toward broadband deployment.

Last year, the Legislature also made it harder for telecommunications companies that provide some broadband service in specific areas of the state to challenge grant awards from the deployment fund, ensuring that if they win so-called first-right-of-refusal appeals, which the law allows, they provide equal or better service.

This year, the Legislature addressed another major issue that could help open up more broadband services in rural areas.

Under Senate Bill 107, introduced by two Western Slope lawmakers — Democrats Sen. Kerry Donovan, whose district includes Delta County, and Dylan Roberts, whose district includes Eagle and Routt counties — private entities that have fiber optic lines on utility easements, such as the  Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, can lease use of their lines to broadband providers.

The state also has entered into a contract with AT&T to install Colorado's portion of the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet. That's a program created by Congress to build a national data network for the nation's police, fire and other emergency services agencies.

While the wireless network is designed to aid emergency service agencies that subscribe to its service, AT&T is allowed to use that same network for its private consumers, opening up more wireless broadband service in hard-to-reach areas of the state.

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