The importance of rural broadband is not in dispute. In a post-COVID world, high-speed connectivity will increasingly define have and have-not communities. A lack of reliable broadband (defined as a MINIMUM 25 Mbps download speed) will handicap economic development not only for existing businesses and industry but will also serve as a barrier to developing remote workforces.
Like the development of rural electrification in the first half of the twentieth century, broadband is difficult because market forces promote PROFITABLE deployment rather than UNIVERSAL deployment. At one end of the policy spectrum is letting the market dictate the speed and breadth of broadband availability, while at the other is the idea that both the infrastructure necessary for broadband and its deployment on the last mile should be a public function. Closer to the free market model is that policymakers should focus on providing incentives—and disincentives—to internet provides to encourage broader availability. Closer to the idea of the public providing internet is the concept of a public/private partnership—with the public providing internet infrastructure which is broadly made available to for-profit internet service providers.
This partnership is the path being pursued by Custer County, which is finalizing a $1 million grant application to the Economic Development Administration, which is a match for a $1 million grant from DOLA. Custer County is planning to build four 100 foot publicly owned towers that two or three wireless providers can use to provide up to 100 Mbps download speeds for 80 percent of the addresses of this very rural and isolated county.
The Huerfano Economic Development Board is currently pursuing development of broadband services via a fiber optic line that currently runs from the San Luis Valley into the town of La Veta. Additionally, a backhaul service is being developed in concert with Custer county west of Huerfano County. That system utilizes a series of towers and will bring the service into the county along Highway 69.
Broadband is also complex because the loose definition of it is “faster than it is today.” Residential subscribers who might be happy with a 20 to 30 Mbps speed, local businesses often need speeds of 100 Mbps. If the region seeks to attract data or call centers, the need may be for service in the 1Gbs range or better.
Funding for broadband is a patchwork of grants, incentives, and loans spread among many state and federal agencies. There are many parts of the government working to improve broadband, and each group has a piece of a very large-sized elephant.
SCEDD sees itself as a learning organization with two major functions: (1) to lead the planning and convening efforts of the region, and (2) to play a constructive role in seeing that plans do not become binders collecting dust on a shelf.
Like the consultants who have weighed in on several broadband studies, we think regionally. That does not mean that there is a single regional solution. The rugged, mountainous geography of Custer County that suggests wireless as the best means of increasing internet speed is not the same as a small community that has fiber connectivity closer at hand.
In our view, the next few years of broadband looks something like this in the SCEDD region:
1. There needs to be a regional plan with clear, measurable goals, but also a multi-jurisdictional organization or organizations that take responsibility for meeting goals.
2. Cooperation and partnerships with existing internet providers are critical. Planners need to understand the incentives and constraints of the private sector.
3. Public/private partnerships may well be the preferred solution, but that should not preclude other approaches.
4. The ubiquitous deployment of broadband in all corners of the SCEDD region is of urgent concern.