Federal, state dollars expand broadband access in rural Routt County | SteamboatToday.com

Federal, state dollars expand broadband access in rural Routt County

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — During the first shutdowns of the pandemic in March and April, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner said he went to a wireless store to get a hot spot device to make distance learning for his children easier.

“I think the entire town was in the Viaero Wireless store trying to find hot spots,” Gardner said at a news conference last month. “I can find five bars in my hometown, I cannot find five bars on my cellphone.”

Broadband access has always been a problem in rural communities, but a pandemic, which has forced workers and students to trade in offices and classrooms for a kitchen table, has only increased its importance.

Efforts on both state and federal levels have pushed to increase broadband access. Federal grants, called ReConnect grants, stem from the 2018 Farm Bill, which provided over $1.2 billion in grants and loans to speed up internet in rural communities. Last month, Yampa Valley Electric Association received $6 million in a ReConnect grant targeted at South Routt County and four other counties.

The co-op also has received $2.4 million in funding from the Colorado State Broadband Fund to expand access for people in northern Routt County.

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The electric cooperative currently offers fiber-based internet, which can reach faster speeds, to roughly 20% of its total electric customers, which is about 4,000 homes and businesses, said Megan Moore-Kemp, energy solutions manager with Yampa Valley Electric Association.

“Everywhere I go in Colorado, broadband comes up over and over again,” said Sen. Michael Bennet in a news conference last month. “People either don’t have broadband access at all or people have broadband that is either too expensive or too slow to be of any use to their families.”

Currently in Colorado, about 96% of households have access to broadband internet as of April of this year, according to the Colorado Broadband Office. But when considering rural populations, just 87% of them have broadband access.

“Six million dollars can really move the bar in connectivity in rural Colorado in a key area of our state,” said Gov. Jared Polis in a news conference last month, referring to the federal award. “We are seeing the importance of connectivity more now than ever before.”

For many, having broadband access is a basic question of equality, and Bennet said having quality access to broadband could change the trajectory of a community.

“It just seems to me that tolerating a society where one group of kids has access to broadband and another group doesn’t is like tolerating a society where one group of kids has access to textbooks and another group doesn’t,” Bennet said.

The ReConnect grant will fund the construction of over 200 miles of “middle-mile” fiber — the larger internet pipeline that connects individual service lines, connecting underserved communities to high-speed broadband. This will connect 264 rural households including 27 farms, 27 businesses and three post offices.

The rugged terrain and remote nature of many of these communities have complicated efforts to develop better fiber connectivity.

“If you take a drive from our offices and head toward McCoy or Hamilton or Maybell, you will begin to understand why it has been so difficult and discouraging for many over the years to consider the construction and development of fiber optics throughout these remote areas,” said Steve Johnson, CEO and general manager of Yampa Valley Electric Association.

The award to Northwest Colorado came as rural communities in nine different states received similar awards from the USDA to expand broadband last month.

In northern Routt County, the nearly $2.4 million is helping Yampa Valley Electric Association expand service for more than 450 addresses, about 20 of which are businesses.

“Across our territory, it has been increasingly clear that broadband services are not an option at this time, but a necessity for community health and wellbeing,” Johnson said. “The build out of broadband is the single most important investment we can make in our communities.”

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