Prepared remarks: Attorney General Phil Weiser to the Region 10 Broadband Workshop (Jan. 30, 2023)

The Broadband Opportunity for Southwest Colorado

I appreciate the opportunity to join you today to discuss the challenge and opportunity of ensuring that all Coloradans have access to broadband. For starters, let me thank Corey Bryndal and leaders in Regions 9 and 10 for convening an important conversation with an impressive group of stakeholders. As I have related in our prior visits, the collaboration represented by this undertaking is truly a model and inspiration. It’s an honor to work with you to achieve the goal of enabling universal, accessible, and affordable broadband to Southwest Colorado.

As I often say, we are now facing a critical, once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that all Coloradans have access to broadband. This means jobs. It means education. It means economic development. And it means better public safety and access to telehealth services. In short, broadband access is critical to participating in our 21st century economy.

Recognizing the importance of broadband, our Department has focused on supporting broadband development statewide. To that end, I led a bipartisan effort among AGs to make the case to Congress for including broadband deployment funding in recovery legislation. Thankfully, Congress did just that. Recognizing the importance of this opportunity, our Department hired what we believe is the nation’s first Assistant Attorney General for Broadband, ensuring that Colorado is prepared to take full advantage or and execute on the opportunities presented by this once-in-a-generation funding opportunity.

Under recent legislation, Colorado is positioned to receive as much as $800 million for broadband deployment and digital literacy and equity programs. Much of this funding will go to “unserved” rural broadband communities. Under federal law, funding allocated to the states will be based on the number of “unserved” homes and businesses. To inform this effort, the FCC revamped its mapping technology to identify every home and business in the country that is unserved. You can review the FCC map here. To date, the Colorado Broadband Office has filed over 13,000 challenges to the FCC map, and it is likely the map will be continually updated based on more input.

In past meetings I’ve had with this group, I learned first-hand about the commitment you all have to making the Region 9 backbone project a success. For starters, the money put up for matching funds from a number of local communities is a testament to how much this project matters to you.  It makes a powerful statement, for example, when Archuleta County invests 50% of the funds it received under federal stimulus programs into broadband. Moreover, the number of government agencies entities that have come together to make this Region 9 backbone network a reality is a powerful statement. So is how Region 10 personnel are sharing their time and expertise with their neighbors.  Your work and passion for achieving this goal drives me to help in any way I can, including when I went to DC in person to urge the federal Department of Commerce to support this network.

My conviction behind this project is not only because it reflects such impressive collaboration, but also because I appreciate the vision for it. In short, in order to enable affordable, robust, and reliable last mile broadband service, it is important to have “middle mile” broadband networks. The advent of self-healing rings revolutionized urban broadband access over a generation ago. Such rings mean that, if the fiber backbone is cut in one area, the ring automatically routes around the damage and enables reliable broadband coverage to continue. But too many parts of Colorado lack this access.  That means when a single fiber connection is cut, hospitals and other critical providers are left without reliable broadband as a result.

As you know, this project won’t be easy—even after getting the funding and other critical elements in place to enable its construction. Most notably, it will take considerable work to develop the governance model and operational plan to ensure that this network, once built, can be maintained. Unfortunately, some backbone networks have been built and then later failed because of a lack of prior planning and effective management. We cannot let that happen with this network. This means you all must begin planning now to work through those issues. And, as you do so, my Department is here to help you develop an effective system of governance and operational maintenance.

When it comes to building this backbone network, I know full well that you have a significant challenge in how fiber infrastructure can be constructed over Wolf Creek Pass. The basic challenge, as you all know, is that no fiber currently is deployed over Wolf Creek Pass and this pass is a critical link for the envisioned Region 9 middle mile fiber ring. Moreover, CDOT has entered into an agreement with a private company, Arcadian, that governs how new infrastructure to be deployed in this area will be built and managed. Under the agreement, a CDOT contractor is responsible for laying the fiber over Wolf Creek Pass, and Arcadian is required to reimburse CDOT for installation costs. And, under the agreement, both CDOT and Arcadian will obtain and manage access to the fiber infrastructure, but the CDOT fiber is restricted to non-commercial purposes.

Under the terms of the agreement, the fiber managed by Arcadian will be available for sale or lease to commercial users. In particular, Arcadian must provide such use on nondiscriminatory commercially reasonable terms.  If Arcadian fails to make access available under these terms, then CDOT is authorized to provide commercial users access to its fiber infrastructure that was provided by Arcadian. If it so chose, moreover, rather than gain access to the Arcadian installed fiber, Region 9 could approach CDOT to negotiate its own access arrangement to an alternate right-of-way on Wolf Creek Pass. Notably, with significant funding opportunities now available to it, Region 9 has more options than when CDOT first negotiated the Arcadian agreement.

As for Arcadian, my understanding is that discussions between it and Region 9 have now commenced. Ideally, there is a win-win solution that can enable this project to be completed in an expeditious and cost-effective fashion. In all events, as this initiative progresses, I am committed to monitoring and supporting how this issue and any other potential challenges get resolved. If that means, for example, that I would need to engage on the question of whether the company provided access to this critical infrastructure on nondiscriminatory and commercially reasonable terms, I would be ready and willing to do so.

I will wrap up by discussing one final point that will become possible with the construction of the Region 9 backbone network. With the benefit of affordable middle mile access, local communities in Region 9 can look forward to the construction and operation of affordable last mile access, supported by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. My Department is committed to ensuring that any provider who commits to build such networks delivers on their promise and provides robust levels of broadband access. To that end, my office will be working to ensure that Colorado’s broadband agreements are effective and that we also use our consumer protection authority to make sure that providers that commit to provide certain levels of service deliver on those promises. If, whether sooner or later, you have information about providers failing to deliver on the broadband connectivity levels they promised, please let me know.

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Thank you—for your engagement, your collaboration, and your initiative in addressing the digital divide in your communities. As you continue this work, please know that I am all in to support you and help your vision becomes a reality. It won’t be easy, but few things worth doing are. It’s crucial to the future of your communities and will be a game changer for southwestern Colorado.

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