Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor:
The Efforts Made to Improve Broadband and Communications Services in Teller County
A lot of hard work and financial investment has been made recently by service providers to expand access to internet services in Teller County. But as many people in the more remote parts of Teller County have told us, we have a long way to go to claim success. For many in Teller County, high speed internet and cell phone service are still unavailable or unreliable—just ask them. That’s a problem for public health and safety, commerce, and quality of life. That’s why a small group of concerned citizens and government leaders have been meeting and working together for over two years to find ways to help solve the problem. These meetings have been open to the public, and our local internet service providers have been invited by name to each of them. Some providers have attended regularly, some have not. While it’s true that we have far more fiber optic cable today than we had five years ago, we are still far from having enough, partly because the additional fiber optic cable will be very expensive to put in, especially in rural areas.
Building new infrastructure is expensive. Those who have been told that there are not enough subscribers in their neighborhood to justify bringing in new fiber optic cable know the challenge our service providers face. The cost of expansion must be paid for by a sufficient number of users to cover those costs over time. Businesses must make a profit to survive; profits are good and necessary. But when the high costs of bringing important services make it unprofitable and prevent those services from being delivered to more remote areas, there may be a proper role of government to overcome that financial obstacle, for the benefit of everyone.
Thanks to a 75%-funded state grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) Energy Mineral Impact Assistance Fund, Teller County recently completed a professionally developed plan to measure the quality and availability of internet and cellular service in the County and develop a plan to fix it. We now have a plan, but it will be expensive to carry out, if we choose to do so. That’s where state and federal grants and inter-government collaboration come in.
While it’s true that no government program is free of charge, it’s also true that some programs already have funds set aside, and that includes the funds we will seek to pay for the telecommunications improvements in Teller County. If you pay a phone bill, you have already helped to pay for these improvements. Every bill we pay for telephone or cell phone use includes a small “Universal Service Charge”, or it may simply be described as “taxes and fees” on your phone bill. In Colorado, that charge is an additional 2.6%, collected by the service provider and forwarded to the Colorado High Cost Support Mechanism (HCSM) and the federal Universal Services Administration Company (USAC). One expressed purpose of these fees is to help cover the costs of bringing broadband services into hard to reach “high cost” areas of the country. That includes Teller County.
We’re also working on cost-sharing with Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), Colorado Springs Utilities, as well as with public utility companies. Options may also be open for providers to take advantage of funds from the recently formed Broadband Deployment Fund, created by Colorado House Bill 14-1328, to use these collected fees to expand access to broadband. Collaboration is key.
The Teller County plan just completed proposes to bring new fiber optic cable to rural parts of Teller County to connect government service centers and health care facilities, paid for by these state and federal grants and cost-sharing with CDOT. County support for other services will not be threatened; I am confident that your three County Commissioners will make sure of that. The plan also recommends that construction and operations contracts be managed by a new not-for-profit company. In the process of connecting these public offices, fiber optic cable will be brought much closer to our remote businesses and neighborhoods, so that costs to local providers of delivering their services to homes and businesses may be reduced, now making it profitable for service providers to bring the services to these areas. Some service providers may choose not to participate in the cooperative plan; others certainly will. We will welcome all providers to participate through a free market process.
But a 2005 Colorado state law called Senate Bill 152 prohibits local governments from providing access of this network to private subscribers, unless voters permit such collaboration by a public vote. Each voter in Teller County will see this issue on their November 8 ballot, mailed out to voters on October 17. A YES vote on this ballot question will permit the County or City to work with local service providers to bring broadband internet to businesses and neighborhoods in their area. A NO vote will prohibit this collaboration. Go to http://www.co.teller.co.us/BOCC/BroadBandPlan.pdf to read the Teller County and Western El Paso County Broadband, Wireless, Cellular, and Public Safety Plan.
I look forward to working together to serve those living and working in our beautiful County.
Norm Steen
Teller County Commissioner
SteenN@co.teller.co.us