In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the disparity in the tiny school districts’ costs for internet service are as stark as the looming sand dunes: One school pays nearly $1,900 a month for service slower than broadband; another pays $90 a month for good, high-speed service; still another, $600 a month for lightning-fast access.
In Norwood, Colo. on the Western Slope, population 518, Mayor Kieffer Parrino endures the regular ritual of rebooting his slow home internet connection when websites aren’t loading and his daughter’s homework is delayed by hours.
And at the Uncompahgre Medical Center, serving Norwood’s San Miguel County, when a windstorm messes with the wireless internet connection in the middle of a patient’s imaging procedure, slowing transmission and access to an urban-based radiologist, medical providers say they are suddenly on their own and “do our best.”
All over Colorado’s mountain west, civic and business leaders say they hear this from entrepreneurs looking to relocate or start businesses, or professionals who would like to come and work remotely: No move—and no accompanying economic boon—until the internet broadband gets improved.
“Broadband or the absence of broadband are foundational to the well-being of any individual, frankly.”
Colorado state and regional leaders are ramping up a renewed push to get acceptable broadband speeds everywhere in the state they currently are not: 23 percent of rural residents lack broadband access, according to the Colorado Broadband Data and Development Program. That’s slightly better than the national average for rural areas, and an improvement from two years ago when 32 percent lacked access, but still leaves hundreds of thousands of Coloradans behind in the race for economic and academic progress.
Such internet access disparities—added to the list of others faced by rural Coloradans, from lower incomes than urban areas, to reduced access to health care services, to food deserts and insecurity, to gaps in transportation and quality housing stock—contribute to poor health outcomes, according to research compiled by the Rural Health Information Hub, a nonprofit funded by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy.
“Broadband or the absence of broadband are foundational to the well-being of any individual, frankly,” said Tony Neal-Graves, a former Intel executive appointed this spring as executive director of a new office of broadband services in the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology.
“It’s not just so you can watch Netflix—it’s a matter of, you can’t do your homework in your rural area,” said Ouray County Commissioner Ben Tisdel. “Increasingly, that’s how the schools operate,” he said, as one example of how fast internet service has become as much a utility as a connection to the electrical grid was in the 1900s.
“We feel both remote and isolated from what services the majority of people in the state get,” Tisdel said. “It’s something that people in Aurora or Douglas County don’t even have to think about.”
With the internet burrowing its way so deeply into education, employment, health care and nearly every other aspect of modern life, those championing rural communities want to keep it from becoming another area where they fall too far behind.
“The story I hear over and over is that there are a lot of people considering moving to smaller communities for quality-of-life issues. A lot of those people can have mobile jobs now, but they need a place where the internet is fast and reliable,” said Jawaid Bazyar, owner and president of Denver-based Forethought.net.
“That’s what constituents are telling town leaders, and town leaders are telling us. It’s not just that it’s a nice thing to have—it’s that it’s critical to these communities, and as important as electricity.”
Rural leaders sometimes bristle at broadband debates that make it sound like all they are missing with slower internet speeds is binge-watching “Game of Thrones,” or one-click ordering on Amazon.
Here are a few of the crucial business, institutional and personal connections they cite as growing needs for faster service:
-Academic requirements at local schools and community colleges, in an era when nearly all courses require an internet link for statewide testing, individual research and assignment tracking.
-Business-to-business relationships, including parts ordering at auto and other service stores, credit card processing at nearly any retail outlet.
-Ranching and farming increasingly require fast, reliable internet connections for anything from auction prices for farm animals and commodities, to satellite connections for weather reports and GPS-guided field equipment.
-Government services — both at home or from regional federal buildings—with many rural residents relying on access to online portals to utilize Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Social Security Disability, Veterans Affairs or other benefits.
-Medical services and records. The challenges here reside at multiple stops in the information pipeline. Regional medical offices and hospitals now depend on electronic records and remote reading of medical imaging by city-based specialists; waiting for a download while a patient is opened up in a rural operating room is an obvious inequity. Fast making progress, meanwhile, are wearable monitoring technologies for the elderly or chronically ill, and remote monitoring via broadband has already become vital for home-based medical services.
Nationwide, about 39 percent of the U.S. rural population—comprising 23 million people—lack access to broadband.
Neal-Graves said the current statewide broadband access rate of about 77 percent means 125,000 to 160,000 homes in rural parts of Colorado can’t get a fast link. He has spent his first few months as chief of Colorado’s broadband effort traveling the state and identifying potential sources of buildout money. He said the state goal is to extend access to 85 percent of rural residents by 2018, and to 100 percent by 2020.
Scott Bookman, executive director of Uncompahgre Medical Center and its weather-challenged connection to reliable broadband, echoed other regional leaders when he assessed the gaps as a problem getting close to a solution. Small towns are cooperating and state leaders are listening, he said.
One of the first things Uncompahgre would do with higher speeds, Bookman said, is to begin using a remote transcriber to join patient-provider encounters by video link, to take notes and update medical records. City hospitals now often have an extra person in the exam room for that; smaller hospitals with good bandwidth can do it by a video connection.
“Every decision we make seems to be about whether we can bring more telecommunications services to the building,” Bookman said. “I think the community is really rallying around this issue. It’s a long battle. You can’t take these things for granted out here.”
Michael Booth is a Writer in Denver, Colorado. Reproduced with permission of The Colorado Trust (www.coloradotrust.org). *The article has been edited for length.
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