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 U.S.

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 some of the historic investment allocated for federal broadband funding will be used to connect unserved Coloradans.

As an educator 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 have parents or care providers who are able to stay at home with their children, helping them navigate online and home study, the vast majority of parents have to continue working to pay their rent or mortgages and to provide food. On the table for their families, they leave them in a crunch to play both as a remote learning assistant and a provider for their family.

Additionally, too many families have not had access to broadband internet during the pandemic. Because of this, students are 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 the once-in-a-generation 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elected leaders in Colorado can make sure their hard work does what it’s intended to do by updating our Nation’s outdated pole access rules. Successful, rapid expansion of broadband will require much-needed changes in the use of pole access.

Utility poles play a critical role in our communications infrastructure, and this has become more true with 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 attach their technology to existing poles.

However, most broadband providers do not own 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 apply their technology.

All this would be fine if there was a functional system regulating access to Poles.

Unfortunately, the permitting process can be complicated and opaque. Not all pole owners share the same sense of urgency that unserved Coloradans do for broadband access. Even if 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 costs for access. These disputes can go on for many 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 drag out, then leave unserved communities stuck 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: although 6% of the country overall lacks access to broadband infrastructure, the figure rises to more than 24 percent in rural areas. Furthermore, more than one in six people living in poverty have no internet access.

Coloradans and Americans need solutions that bring transparency and reform a broken, outdated system, otherwise the millions of Americans meant to be helped by the infrastructure bill will face the same connectivity challenges that have plagued them for generations.

Congress can build on its admirable work on infrastructure by taking action to speed up access to poles and resolve disputes over pole replacements so we can seize the opportunity to bring high-speed Internet to every home and business. Many Americans count on our leaders to get connected. Congress should establish clear rules for quickly resolving disputes between pole owners and providers so that the expansion of broadband infrastructure is not unnecessarily delayed.

The bipartisan infrastructure law holds great promise to finally get every home and business access to high-speed Internet. We need leaders in Washington like Sens. Hickenlooper and Bennett to make sure we create the right conditions that allow the law to do what it was meant to do.

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Lori Goldstein lives in Westminster.

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