Colorado Legislative Rural Caucus meets for 1st time

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— The Colorado Legislative Rural Caucus met for the first time Monday, hosting a panel discussion about rural telecom issues.

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Diane Mitsch Bush

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Colorado House District 57 Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale

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Randy Baumgardner

The caucus is chaired by Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, and Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton.

Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, represent Routt and Moffat counties in the caucus.

“We had an excellent meeting,” Mitsch Bush said Tuesday.

Members of the telecom industry and related interest groups were present Monday for the panel about possible legislation changing how the state’s high-cost telecom fund is used.

The high-cost fund is supported by a surcharge on phone bills and goes toward reimbursing carriers that provide landlines in rural areas.

Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, and Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, “have really been the centerpieces on this,” Mitsch Bush said.

The bill has yet to be drafted, Mitsch Bush said, but one plan would be to repurpose some of the high-cost fund for “technology-neutral” expansion of broadband access through a granting process overseen by a commission of industry members, local officials and residents.

Mitsch Bush also said there has been work to better define which areas are unserved for the uses of the bill, which would focus on available speeds rather than the number of providers.

That change in the definition is important for rural areas of Routt County, she said, that might be served by poor speeds from incumbent telecom companies.

“This, I think, is a more sensible,” Mitsch Bush said about defining unserved in terms of speeds.

The high-cost fund isn’t that large, she said, and not all of it would be directed toward broadband build-out for unserved communities.

Mitsch Bush said there’s a high level of consensus from stakeholders but that success ultimately depends on the final draft of a bill.

Similar attempts to repurpose the high-cost fund have failed in previous years.

Baumgardner had a conflict Monday and could not attend the meeting, but he said Tuesday that legislators will continue to seek consensus about the issue of rural broadband.

“We’re waiting to see how it all shakes out,” he said.

There were legislators present Monday from across the state and both parties, Mitsch Bush said, adding that there’s no single version of rural Colorado.

“We were already learning things from each other yesterday,” she said.

The group plans to meet once per month for the remainder of the session.

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206, email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @MLSchrantz

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