Robinson column: Bringing rural Colorado online | PostIndependent.com

Robinson column: Bringing rural Colorado online

Doug Robinson

The biggest divide in Colorado isn't between Democrats and Republicans; it's between rural and urban Coloradans.

Around 23 percent of our state doesn't have access to a high speed internet connection, a percentage that is overwhelmingly made up of Coloradans in rural communities.

It's hard to overstate just how damaging this lack of internet can be for rural communities. Without a high-speed connection, small businesses can't sell their wares online, freelancers and independent contractors can't work remotely and students can't access the latest knowledge on the web. Without internet, our rural communities simply can't compete; they're falling behind as businesses relocate, young people move away and opportunities pass them by.

Our leaders have been frustratingly slow in addressing this connectivity gap.

As a conservative and an entrepreneur, I have the utmost faith in the ingenuity of private firms to address these connectivity issues. I've actually founded a nonprofit that works closely with local schools to bring technical skills and training to underserved communities.

These type of private-public partnerships present us with the best opportunity to help bring broadband connectivity to our rural communities. Public-private partnerships have already helped us improve transportation in the metro area, improving our roads and combating congestion.

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The state has been in talks to join such a partnerships. FirstNet, a federal partnership with AT&T, would allow the company to build more cell towers to expand high speed wireless coverage around the country. The network would prioritize speeds for our first responders, but would provide individual users with access as well.

This is exactly the type of program that could help increase connectivity in the rural parts of our state. However, the terms of the deal leave a lot to be desired.

States have been given only a 90-day window to determine whether or not they wish to opt in to the program. This presents a challenge, but an addressable one. More problematic, however, is the rate structure of the program. AT&T has said it will negotiate rates with states individually, but only after states have already opted in to the program.

It is likely that FirstNet, as a national network, will provide us with the cheapest path to bringing expanded connectivity to Colorado. But it would be irresponsible to blindly commit to this program before ensuring that it truly does provide the most cost effective path forward.

Last week, the FirstNet Colorado governing body signaled that it would recommend Colorado opts out of the plan. While the board's move doesn't make Colorado's position final — the decision to opt out ultimately rests with the governor — it does mean that Colorado will begin exploring alternatives to the AT&T plan. If Colorado does ultimately decide to opt out, it will have to construct its own First Responders Network, while also paying opt out fees ­— which can number in the hundreds of millions.

Nationally, state leaders need to work together to demand more transparency and more time to make informed decisions about joining FirstNet. Considering the investment of taxpayer dollars into the program, that shouldn't be an unreasonable request.

Once this program provides the transparency for Coloradans to make an informed decision, our state shouldn't hesitate to join — if, in fact, FirstNet truly is the best choice for us.

Doug Robinson is a Republican gubernatorial candidate.