What’s blocking more broadband? The humble utility pole

High-speed internet to every home and business in this country has been out of reach for the past 20 years despite the efforts of departments on both sides of the aisle — until now. Thanks to the incredible work of the Biden administration and leaders such as US Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennett, Colorado and the rest of America have a historic opportunity to bridge the digital divide once and for all.

The bipartisan infrastructure package allocates $65 billion to connect the remaining 6% of American homes without access to high-speed Internet, including some rural and remote areas of Colorado. With more than 6% (about 350,000 residents) of Coloradans lacking access to broadband according to BroadbandNow, it is critical that we ensure that a portion of this historic investment earmarked for federal broadband funding is used to connect unserved Coloradans.

As a teacher and member of the Education Board of Five Star Schools in Adams 12, I have seen the direct effects of the pandemic on learning for students across our state. While some students had parents or caregivers who were able to stay home with their children, helping them navigate the internet and learn at home, the vast majority of parents had to keep working in order to pay the rent or mortgage and put food on the table for their families, leaving them In crisis to work as a remote teaching assistant and provider for their families.

Furthermore, many families did not have access to broadband internet while entering the pandemic. Because of this, students have been forced to walk to school parking lots and go online to the school in order to keep going to school during the pandemic.

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Now that we have this once-in-a-generation opportunity to level the digital playing field, we need the federal government to remove the barriers to success — our elected leaders in Colorado can make sure their hard work does what is intended by updating the Pole Access rules outdated. The successful and rapid expansion of broadband will require much-needed changes in access to the service pillar.

Utility poles play an important role in our communications infrastructure, and this is becoming even more true with our increasing reliance on the Internet. For unserved areas – communities that don’t have access to any high-speed internet infrastructure – the most effective way to get it online is for ISPs to link their technology to existing poles

However, most broadband providers do not have utility poles; Small utilities, cooperatives, electric companies and other entities do just that. Therefore, providers must obtain permission to access the columns and pay a fee to install their technology.

All would be fine if there was a functional system governing access to the columns.

Unfortunately, the permitting process can be complex and opaque. Not all pole owners share the same sense of urgency as unserved Coloradans for broadband access. Although providers have shown willingness to pay the costs associated with attachments to the new column, in some cases, disputes arise over the cost of access. These controversies can last for several months before they are later heard and resolved.

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Without a conflict resolution system or rapid access to the pole, this process can be lengthy, thus leaving underserved communities stranded without access to the internet and thus the critical services they need, including distance learning, telehealth, and more.

Rural Americans are 10 times more likely to lack access to broadband than those in urban areas. To put this in mind: While 6% of the country generally lacks access to broadband infrastructure, this number rises to more than 24% in rural areas. Moreover, more than one in six people living in poverty do not have access to the Internet.

Colorado residents and Americans alike need solutions that bring transparency and fix an outdated system, or else the millions of Americans whose infrastructure bill is supposed to help will face the same connectivity challenges that have held them back for generations.

Congress can build on its impressive work on infrastructure by taking action to speed up access to poles and resolve poles replacement disputes so we can take advantage of this opportunity to bring high-speed Internet to every home and business. Many Americans rely on our leaders to connect. Congress should establish clear rules for quickly resolving disputes between owners and providers so that broadband infrastructure expansion is not unnecessarily delayed.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act holds great promise to finally reach every home and business with high-speed Internet. We need leaders in Washington like Senator Hickenlooper and Bennett to make sure we create the right conditions that allow this law to do what it was supposed to do.


Laurie Goldstein lives in Westminster.

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