Internet bills sail through House

Bills provide funds for rural areas

DENVER – Bills to boost rural broadband and rewrite Colorado’s telecommunications laws sailed through the House on Wednesday after four years of failed efforts.

The bills would rewrite Colorado’s telecom laws, which predate widespread use of the Internet, and would begin to provide money to build high-speed Internet in areas of the state that lack access.

“It’s not going to give us the funding we need. But it’s going to give us the hope,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who sponsored one of the bills.

For four years, a successful telecom reform bill has been the legislative equivalent of catching a leprechaun riding a unicorn.

Opposition from one segment of Colorado’s telecom industry – phone, cellular and cable companies – always killed the effort.

Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, sponsored telecom reform bills for four years and didn’t see a successful vote until Wednesday.

“We will be able to connect our schools. We will be able to connect our hospitals for tele-health. We will be able to connect our business owners in rural areas,” Williams said.

Phone companies, primarily Centurylink, get money to serve hard-to-reach customers through a high-cost fund that is filled with fees paid by its customers. Coram’s bill would take some of that fund and use it to make grants for broadband construction.

At first, only a sliver of the $52 million fund is expected to be redirected to broadband, but supporters expect the amount to grow over the years.

With telecom companies all supporting this year’s bills, AARP has emerged as the key opposition.

As part of the package of bills, regular telephone service in many parts of the state would be deregulated. Currently, the Public Utilities Commission sets price caps on basic phone service.

Critics say landline costs in other states have risen after deregulation. Older people prefer landlines, according to AARP.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said during debate Monday that landlines are often the only way to communicate for some of his constituents, especially in areas that lack cellular coverage.

Coram began working last fall on getting rural groups to coalesce around the broadband bills, and that made the difference this year, he said.

“We had the rural people at the table. They were telling us what they needed and how they needed it,” Coram said.

The bills now go to the Senate, and sponsors say they are optimistic that they will pass.