Tammy and Mike Story have lived in the foothills outside Denver for nearly 30 years. The couple loves where they live but find it frustrating not to have a reliable Internet connection.

(Photo: CPR/John Daley)
Colorado lawmakers are close to putting the finishing touches on a series of telecom reforms aimed in part at improving rural broadband, which has drawn complaints as being spotty, expensive or non-existent.

And lawmakers efforts can't come fast enough for many Coloradans, even those living close to Denver. 

So close, but so far

Tammy and Mike Story have lived in the foothills outside Denver, just off U.S. Highway 285, for nearly 30 years. Their address is in Morrison but they’re in a two-story home nestled in the woods. The couple loves living there but there’s a hitch when it comes to their Internet.

"It really has an impact," Mike says. "If there’s more than one device on the system here, so if Tammy and I both are checking email or looking up things in the Internet."

Mike pulls up a YouTube clip of a Colorado Avalanche playoff game that streams fine but the picture quality is poor. But when Tammy looks at a video from a school board meeting at the same time, there’s trouble: the so-called "wheel of death."

"The video is just frozen," Tammy says. "There’s a little graphic, a little spinning wheel and it’s just going round and round.”

Mike, who works as a scientist for the National Park Service in Lakewood, says it’s frustrating not being able to do work online from home.  What's more is the couple can see from their house the city of Denver, where connectivity is not an issue.

“It just seems ridiculous to me that we can be that close to a metro area and not have the same access to the same high-speed broadband that they do in town," Tammy says.

Holding back progress

A few miles down the road in the town of Conifer, there’s a King Soopers grocery store, some restaurants, a gas station and some empty store fronts. Business leaders believe those store fronts are empty in part due to sketchy Internet access.

“It’s a huge deterrent to attracting new business," Executive Director of the Conifer Area Chamber of Commerce Susan Beams says. "I think tech businesses would be a perfect fit for our community, however we do not have the infrastructure to accommodate them.”

Conifer-based accountant Diana Paty is also frustrated by Internet connectivity.

“Sometimes I will spend eight hours downloading to get a software program," Paty says. "Eight hours – yes – if it's a large software program.”

The main Internet service provider in Conifer is CenturyLink and Regional Vice President Jim Campbell likens the expansion of broadband to the development of railroads with rural areas getting service later than cities.

“The closer you are to the backbone, the easier it is to get speed," Campbell says. "The real issue with the remote areas is they live further away from the fiber highway.”

Looking for a solution

After several years of trying, Colorado lawmakers are again wrestling with telecommunications reform. A bipartisan package of bills (PDF), now approaching final passage, aims to deregulate new technologies, update and modernize telecom laws and help fund the build-out of rural broadband infrastructure.

“The message to those in rural areas who don’t have broadband is broadband is coming," Rep. Angela Williams (D-Denver) says. "We’re going to connect Colorado.”

The new legislation would help incentivize telecom companies to invest in underserved areas, according to Campbell, who is also one of the main sponsors of the bill. Funding would come by shifting the $54 million that now helps pay for high-cost landline service to development of rural broadband.

“The broadband fund that’s being created here is really going to spur investments and jobs further out into the most remote areas of the state," Campbell says.

Leaving people out?

Critics argue that by deregulating, companies would no longer have to maintain phone lines. They say costs for traditional landline service, often used by the elderly, disabled and those with low income, will skyrocket.

American Association of Retired People (AARP) representative Bill Levis recently testified to lawmakers against the reforms.

"You’re throwing consumers under the bus,” Levis told lawmakers.

Katie Fleming Dahl of Common Cause Colorado, a non-profit watchdog group, agrees with Levis.

“Will people possibly lose their telephone service?" Dahl says. "From our reading of the bill the answer is ‘yes.’”

CenturyLink’ Campbell insists the landlines won't go away, saying telecom companies want to keep their customers and the legislation would provide regulatory certainty

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 30 percent of U.S. adults have no broadband Internet access at home. 

Susan Crawford, a visiting Harvard Law professor and author of a new book on the telecom industry, says lawmakers across the country are struggling with how to fix a persistent digital divide.

“We’re going through the same thing with high-speed internet access in America that we went through with electrification in the country," Crawford says. "The rich areas are getting served first by private companies, subject to no oversight, and that leaves behind a lot of rural areas and poorer communities.”

It's also left behind people like Mike and Tammy Story.

“I mean, if a 30-minute program takes you an hour to watch," Mike says.  "I’d rather watch the commercials on TV."

Meanwhile, Colorado lawmakers are on track to get these telecom reforms to the governor’s desk before the end of the session next month.