High-speed internet help for rural DougCo heads to ballot

Mike McKibbin

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By Mike McKibbin/NewsBreak Denver

[DOUGLAS COUNTY, COLO.] Voters in Douglas County will likely consider a ballot measure in the Nov. 8 general election to allow the county to help improve high-speed internet services.

Commissioners George Teal and Lora Thomas assured those at a live town hall Wednesday that the county does not plan to operate a broadband department if voters approve the measure.

Instead, the county plans to act as a pass-through for state and federal grant money to private service providers who agree to expand and improve access and speeds in the county.

The commissioners have until sometime in August to put the issue on the ballot.

The issue concerns a 2005 legislatively-approved measure that prevents local governments from operating communication facilities. The bill allowed local entities to seek voter permission to opt-out of the prohibition.

Teal said a 2021 HR Green Broadband and Fiber study found that 97% of county residents had access to an internet service provider. Still, Teal noted 5,604 residents did not have internet service, and 7,129 were considered underserved according to Federal Communications Commission standards.

Irena Steven with HR Green said the study found many rural areas of the county had broadband download speeds of less than 25 megabytes per second. Others were considered underserved with speeds of less than 100MB per second.

"Of the county's 91 subdivisions, about half are in those two categories, so we think this is a good opportunity to use the federal grant money that's available to help improve services," she stated.

Holly Carrell, special projects manager for the county, said more than 100 Colorado municipalities and 40 of its 64 counties had received voter approval to opt out of the law.

"However, the vast majority of those did not result in government-run services," she added. "They helped their private sector partners improve service in rural areas."

Brandy Reitter, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office, said the federal grants come from some $110 million in COVID response measures and a $42 billion infrastructure bill.

Reitter also said the state would require grant applicants to ensure affordable services for those on low or fixed incomes.

Teal said some could view federal grants as "still inherently tax money, so you could say our tax money is funding this scheme."

"We always work to keep our county government small," Thomas added. "And the county has no expertise in broadband. Government doesn't do a very good job doing things that are not part of their basic purpose. So the best people to provide broadband services are the broadband providers."

Thomas also said the county could word the ballot measure to limit it to apply for and pass-through grant money. The question will not include any local tax increase.

Growth offers opportunity for Castle Pines

Castle Pines City Councilmember Kevin Rants said the council had discussed an opt-out measure for the last few years before agreeing to put it on their ballot this fall.

"We're seeing significant growth and we're installing the infrastructure to handle that, so it was a good opportunity to be more forward thinking and agile," he said.

Rants added the city also needs to opt out of the law to allow free WiFi service in city parks.

Castle Rock declines

A day earlier, Castle Rock Town Council decided against asking their voters to opt the town out of the state law.

Assistant Town Manager Kristin Read said the commissioners want municipalities to ask their voters to allow their towns and cities to opt out in support of county efforts. She said Parker did so several years earlier, and Lone Tree will consider the county request.

Read said the county broadband study found "some pretty decent high speed service" in Castle Rock residential areas.

"This isn't something we've heard a lot of complaints about," she added. "So we're not seeing a huge need for this at this time."

"I don't think we're underserved so respectively I think we have to decline the commissioners' ask," said Mayor Jason Gray.

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Mike McKibbin is an independent journalist on Colorado's Front Range and covers Douglas County for NewsBreak.

Denver, CO
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