A draft state rule that would limit subsidies to providers of basic telephone service in rural areas is meeting opposition from some business groups and public officials in Garfield County.
The Garfield Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and Club 20 are among the groups that have come out against the new rule. In its current form, it would limit the state's ability to reimburse companies that provide landline, cellular or cable phone service in areas with higher-than-average costs, including many sparsely populated parts of the state.
"You take small communities, subdivisions such as Missouri Heights or Sunlight Mountain Resort, you just don't have enough users to have a competitive market, and they get left out," said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky.
Before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved the rule last month, money from the State High Cost Fund could go to any company providing service in high cost areas.
Now, that money won't be distributed in markets found to have "effective competition," a condition signaled by the presence of more than one provider, the ability of any single provider to set prices, and other factors.
Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, a business and government policy group based in Grand Junction, said under the new rule, cell phone companies would be considered "providers" along with landline firms, even though cell service is spotty across much of the Western Slope.
"Many people in rural areas do not find that cell service is an adequate alternative," she said. As a result, the state could wind up withholding money from areas underserved by basic phone service, because of the assumption that cell service works better than it actually does.
And Petersen noted that the state's definition of what constitutes "basic phone service" has not been updated in more than two decades.
She argued that the state should consider revising that definition to include broadband Internet service, a view seconded by Jankovsky.
"You can almost go back and say this is similar to when we were trying to get telephone and electrical service to all the rural communities, and now we're trying to get broadband to them," Jankovsky said.
Terry Bote, public information officer for the CPUC, said the board will soon start identifying areas of the state where "effective competition" exists, but it has no plans to expand the State High Cost Fund to cover broadband service.
That change, he said, would have to come from the state Legislature.
In the meantime, many areas of Garfield County remain underserved by cell phone and broadband coverage alike.
At the Garfield County Regional Airport in Rifle, a single slow and outdated Internet cable serves the airport, the County Road and Bridge Department and a Sheriff's Department annex.
"It can take up to 30 seconds just to get online," said Airport Manager Brian Condie, "and streaming videos is not allowed because it slows down the network."
Yet there's simply not enough development near the airport for the telecom company, CenturyLink, to cover the cost of upgrading to a faster line.
"We're waiting for more development out here before we can upgrade," said Condie. "Our three facilities would not even come close to covering the cost."
CenturyLink, along with several other telecom companies, business groups and citizens, have asked the CPUC to overturn its new rule restricting the use of the State High Cost Fund.
Board spokesman Bote said the commission could decide whether to reconsider its decision by the end of this month.