DENVER – For the past four years, attempts to reform Colorado’s telecommunications laws for the digital age have moved slower than an Internet connection in Silverton.
But it appears an upgrade is on the way, after the Senate passed a batch of bills Monday intended to boost broadband Internet access in underserved areas of the state.
Silverton has become Exhibit A of a town without the sort of fast Internet speeds that urban web users take for granted. But many places around the state have similar problems, and the bills passed Monday will let them apply for grants to help build faster connections.
House Bill 1328 would fund broadband projects by redirecting fees that telephone users already pay to subsidize telephone lines in hard-to-reach areas. AARP, a senior citizens’ group, opposed the bill, but sponsors say there will still be enough money available to make sure no one’s phone service is lost.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, passed the Senate 29-6 on Monday.
Four companion bills also passed the Senate. They would deregulate local phone service in many parts of the state and streamline permits for companies building new broadband lines.
Three of the bills now go straight to Gov. John Hickenlooper to be signed into law. Two have to return to the House, which has already passed the package, for agreement with changes the Senate made.
Hickenlooper celebrated the Senate’s passage of the bills.
“Many rural areas of our state have gone without broadband Internet access, or the service has not been what our rural residents deserve. These bills will go a long way to making sure everyone, regardless of where they live in this state, has quality and reliable broadband access,” Hickenlooper said in a news release.
The pot of money for broadband is expected to be small at first, perhaps $3 million a year. A new board appointed by the governor and legislative leaders will decide who gets the grants.
Legislators have tried to pass some version of the bills the past four years and were always unsuccessful, because one or more of Colorado’s telecom companies objected.
Democrats and Republicans cooperated on this year’s bills, and sponsors lauded Monday’s votes.
“These reforms represent significant, but prudent progress. I’m proud that we were able to get them done with vast bipartisan support,” said Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton.