What’s blocking more broadband? The humble utility pole

High-speed Internet for every home and business in this country has been elusive for the past 20 years despite efforts by administrations on both sides of the aisle — until now. Thanks to the incredible work of the Biden administration and leaders like US Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, Colorado and the rest of America have a historic opportunity to close its 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 of Colorado’s most rural and remote areas. With more than 6% (approximately 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 Adams 12 Five Star Schools Board of Education member, I have seen first-hand the effects the pandemic has had 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 learn online and at home, the vast majority of parents had to continue working to pay their rent or mortgage and put food on the table for their families, leaving them in a crunch to act as both distance teaching assistants and providers for their families.

In addition, too many families did not have access to broadband internet going into the pandemic. Therefore, students were forced to go to school parking lots and connect to the school’s internet to continue going to school through the pandemic.

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Now that we have this unique opportunity to level the digital playing field, we need the federal government to remove barriers to success – our elected leaders in Colorado can make sure their hard work is doing what it’s intended to do by updating our nation’s enduring poles Access rules. Successful, rapid broadband expansion requires that much-needed changes be made regarding utility pole access.

Utility poles play a critical role in our communications infrastructure, and this has only become more true with our increasing reliance on the Internet. For unserved areas—communities without access to high-speed Internet infrastructure—the most efficient way to get them online is for Internet service providers to attach their technology to existing poles.

However, most broadband providers do not have utility poles; small utilities, co-ops, electric companies, and other entities do. Therefore, providers must obtain permission to access poles and pay a fee to attach their technology.

All this would be good if there was a functional system to govern access to the poles.

Unfortunately, the approval process can be complicated and opaque. Not all pole owners share the same sense of urgency as unserved Coloradans do for broadband access. Although the providers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay for the costs associated with their new pole attachments, in some cases disputes arise over the costs of access. These disputes can take many months to be heard and then resolved.

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Without a system to resolve disputes or fast-track pole access, this process can drag on, leaving unserved communities without Internet access and therefore the critical services they need, including distance 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 access to broadband infrastructure, that number rises to more than 24 percent in rural areas. Furthermore, more than one in six people living in poverty do not have internet access.

Coloradans and Americans need solutions that bring transparency and reform a broken, outdated system, or the millions of Americans who are supposed to be helped by the infrastructure bill will face the same connectivity challenges that have held them back for generations.

Congress can build on its admirable work on infrastructure by speeding up access to poles and resolving disputes over pole replacements, so we can take advantage of this opportunity to bring high-speed Internet to every home. Many Americans look to our leaders to get 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 holds great promise to finally give every home and business access to high-speed Internet. We need leaders in Washington like Sens. Hickenlooper and Bennet to make sure we create the right conditions that will allow this law to do what it is supposed to do.

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Lori Goldstein lives in Westminster.

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