What’s blocking more broadband? The humble utility pole

High-speed Internet for every home and business in this country has so far been elusive — despite efforts by administrations on both sides of the aisle for the past 20 years. Thanks to the incredible work of leaders like the Biden administration and US Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennett, Colorado and the rest of America have a historic opportunity to close the digital divide once and for all.

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

As an educator and Adams 12 Five Star School Board of Education member, I have seen firsthand the effects of the pandemic on the education of students across our state. While some students had parents or care providers who were able to stay home with their children, helping them navigate online and study at home, most parents had to continue working to pay their rent or mortgage and provide food. at the table for their families, putting them at risk to work as distance learning assistants and a provider for their families.

Furthermore, many households did not have access to broadband internet during the pandemic. Because of this, students were forced to walk to the school parking lot and connect to the school’s Internet to continue going to school through 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 delivers on our goals by updating us. The country’s outdated pole access rules. Successful, rapid broadband expansion requires much-needed changes to utility pole access.

Utility poles play an important role in our communications infrastructure, and this is made even more true by our increasing reliance on the Internet. For unserved areas — communities without access to any high-speed Internet infrastructure — the most efficient way to get them online is for Internet service providers to connect their technology to existing poles.

However, most broadband providers do not have utility poles; Small utilities, cooperatives, electric companies and other organizations do. Therefore, suppliers need to get permission to access the poles and pay a fee to connect their technology.

All this would be fine if there was a functional system controlling access to the pillars.

Unfortunately, the permitting process can be complicated and opaque. Not all pole owners share the same sense of urgency as vulnerable Coloradans for broadband access. Although providers have shown that they are willing to pay for the costs associated with their new pole attachments, in some cases, disputes arise over the cost of access. These disputes can go on for months before they are heard and then resolved.

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Without a system to resolve disputes or fast-track pole access, this process can fizzle out, leaving underserved communities without access to the Internet and critical services they need, including remote learning, telehealth, and more.

Rural Americans are 10 times more likely to lack broadband access than those in urban areas. To put this in perspective: while 6% of the country as a whole lacks broadband infrastructure, the figure is more than 24 percent in rural areas. Moreover, more than one in six people living in poverty do not have internet access.

Coloradans and Americans alike need solutions that bring transparency and fix broken, outdated systems, or the millions of Americans helped by the infrastructure bill will face the same connectivity challenges that have held them back for generations.

Congress can build on its commendable work on infrastructure by acting to speed up access to poles and resolve disputes over pole replacement so we can take advantage of this opportunity to bring high-speed Internet to every home and business. Many Americans depend on our leaders to feel connected. Congress should establish clear rules to quickly resolve disputes between pole owners and providers so that the expansion of broadband infrastructure is not unnecessarily delayed.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Act makes big promises to finally bring high-speed Internet access to every home and business. Sens us in Washington. Leaders like Hickenlooper and Bennett are needed to ensure that we create the right conditions that allow this law to do what it is meant to do.

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Lori Goldstein lives in Westminster.

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