Is this the year for rural Internet?

Coram says jobs are at stake

DENVER – When Rep. Don Coram was a kid, telephones were attached to the wall, and several families shared the same number.

“I grew up on an eight-party landline, and we had a lady named Pearl who thought she had seven of those lines,” said Coram, R-Montrose.

Cell phones? Hadn’t been invented. Internet? Forget about it.

Colorado’s telecommunications laws aren’t quite as old as party lines, but they haven’t been updated for the wireless age. Legislators have been trying for the past four years, without success.

Coram and several others think they can do it this year, and in the process bring broadband Internet service to unserved rural areas.

There’s more at stake than the ability to stream Netflix on an iPad. Coram said his hometown missed out 250 jobs from a corporate expansion because Internet connections weren’t fast enough.

The main idea is to deregulate phone service and fund rural Internet lines with some of the fees that customers pay on their phone bills.

Unlike past years, most telecommunications companies appear to be supporting this year’s effort, and that agreement bodes well for Coram and his fellow sponsors. A package of five bills passed their first votes in the House Business Committee on Tuesday afternoon on unanimous or near-unanimous margins.

But opponents warn that deregulating phone service will lead to higher prices and worse service.

“We need to keep regulation in place so somebody has a hammer to make these telecom companies do what they need to do for consumers,” said Patricia Yeager, chief executive of the Independence Center, a Colorado Springs group for disability rights.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission currently regulates basic phone services, sets a cap on monthly bills and gives phone companies a subsidy to serve rural customers.

Coram’s bill would convert some of the subsidy for basic phone service into a fund for Internet companies to build broadband networks. Early estimates are the bill would bring $3 million to $5 million a year into a new broadband fund – far less than the state needs. But supporters say it’s a good start.

“We just don’t have enough money ... to wave a magic wand and say everyone has broadband. It’s going to be an incremental process,” said Pete Kirchof, president of the Colorado Telecommunications Association.

Rural residents across Colorado have been waiting for broadband for years. Silverton has battled with CenturyLink and its predecessor, Qwest, over construction of a broadband line from Durango. Eagle-Net Alliance is promising to build the line to Silverton, but the group has come under fire for using a $100 million grant from the federal government to build lines in the Denver metro area and leaving large swaths of rural Colorado without service.