Inside one state’s decade-long effort to map broadband availability
Thanks to its detailed data on household internet availability and speed, Colorado has been able to make the most of federal broadband funding opportunities.
With its large metropolitan areas, rural cities and towns and mountain terrain, Colorado faces familiar challenges in deploying broadband infrastructure to all residents, and it has been working for over a decade to close the digital divide.
Established by an executive order from then-Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in 2012 and initially funded by a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) now aims to connect 99% of Coloradoans to high-speed internet by 2027.
But it’s tricky work in a state where the average cost of connecting a home to the internet is $7,000, according to a report by consulting firm Cartesian, with the costs much higher for communities close to the mountains or rural areas where there are few roads built. Even with around 80% of the state’s population living in metropolitan areas, that still leaves a lot of gaps in less densely populated regions.
“It's expensive to drill through a mountain, or go around the mountains to connect the community,” said Brandy Reitter, CBO’s executive director, in a recent interview.
The state estimates that over 88% of households are served by high-speed broadband—which CBO defines as 100 megabits/sec download, 20 Mbps upload—with just over 213,000 households still lacking that level of service. So far, Colorado has awarded more than $90 million in grants for programs to bolster internet access, with more to follow in both state and federal funds.
Of the Colorado households that lack internet, CBO estimates that 56% do not have the physical infrastructure needed to connect, while 44% face equity issues, including a lack of devices or digital literacy.
In those initial years after its founding under the Colorado Office of Information Technology, CBO’s focus was on hiring GIS mapping specialists and following NTIA guidance on using census block access to map broadband availability, as the federal grant required.
That methodology has since been almost universally deemed flawed and inadequate as it assumes that one household in a census block served by broadband meant the whole block was served. That methodology was especially challenging for Colorado given its geography. “In rural Colorado, census blocks can be very big,” said Megan Gernert, broadband data program manager at CBO.
When the NTIA grant money ran out in 2014 and CBO secured funding from the state legislature to continue its work, the mapping methodology changed, Gernert said.
The state transitioned to using the Public Land Survey System, and it then divided the rectangular parcels into quarter sections, so that the entire state was divided up into plots of about 40 acres. That methodology was used until last year, when the state started collecting and mapping address-level data on broadband availability, a more granular approach favored by the federal government.
CBO collects address data that was voluntarily submitted by the more than 100 internet service providers that operate in Colorado, which Gernert said range from the large incumbent providers to small community-level ISPs and electric co-operatives, which like in other states help provide broadband to rural areas.
The state passed legislation that required any ISP that wishes to participate in state funding programs to submit data to CBO’s mapping program twice a year, which Gernert said helps get “more participation” from ISPs. The data is then mapped by in-house staff using GIS and mapping technology from Esri.
It is not just address-level availability that Colorado keeps track of, however. The state also monitors internet speeds through crowdsourced data collected via Ookla, a web service that measures internet upload and download speeds. Gernert said the data the state collects is all supplemented by a survey that residents can take to help verify the state’s address and speed data. If there is a discrepancy, CBO can investigate further and hold individual ISPs to account.
“It takes a lot of communication to get the right data submitted,” Gernert said. “You definitely have to be clear with data guidelines, make sure that you're communicating with the providers and getting the right data back.”
When all that data is combined, CBO then can create various dashboards, including one that shows broadband availability and speeds in individual counties, municipalities, school districts and voting districts, allowing users to compare one community’s access and speed to others. Another dashboard keeps track of CBO grant funding awards across the state.
“Our goal here is to make the information more accessible to people,” Gernert said.
The Federal Communications Commission followed the lead of Colorado and other states that are looking to show more granular data on broadband availability. It released a new national broadband map last year, and while it may appear that the national effort and statewide maps may create some conflict, Gernert said having data from both the FCC and the state is beneficial in many ways.
So far, CBO has been able to cross-check the FCC map with the state-level map to see if the data provided by the ISPs matches up. If not, Gernert said having the federal data available gives her office confidence to go back to the ISP and work out where any discrepancies may be, and so creates a verification loop on data.
And even though some ISPs may feel they are providing duplicative data to the CBO and the FCC, Gernert said the relationships Colorado officials have built with businesses stand them in good stead.
“We're not drastically changing what data we're asking for, without providing a lot of information to them … and we always try to be as available as possible to answer questions,” Gernert said. “I think that's pretty well received. There's still some providers who don't love submitting data to us and the FCC, but we like to keep that relationship and for the most part, people are willing to work with us.”
In time, Gernert said the CBO may “adjust its processes” and update its state-level map more regularly, depending on how frequently the federal map is revised.
The most impactful way CBO used the federal and state maps has been during the FCC’s recent challenge process. The data put Colorado a good position to participate in given its strong GIS resources, compared to other states.
Gernert said CBO “dropped everything” when the FCC released the first version of its map to focus on the address fabric challenge process, and submitted 13,000 locations, most of which were missing from the federal map. Of those 13,000 challenges submitted by CBO, Gernert said the FCC accepted around 6,700. Other entities like businesses, individuals and nonprofits submitted their own challenges to the fabric data, and all told, the state was able to add around 42,000 serviceable locations to the FCC’s map.
Reitter said it was a “daunting” task for CBO alone, so having community involvement in the challenge process made it easier.
“We did a pretty big push … through the media and email marketing and social media to try to get as many people as possible to challenge that map individually in their homes,” she said. “As a state, we put a lot behind it, and I feel like we were probably one of the more successful states because we have the resources to be successful.”
While the state has already appropriated a great deal of grant funding for broadband projects, there is still more to do. Reitter said Colorado has around $165 million to deploy from its Capital Projects Fund, primarily to build last mile infrastructure to unconnected homes.
Meanwhile, the CBO expects to hear in June from NTIA about how much federal funding it will receive from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program. Reitter said she anticipates the state receiving between $400 and $700 million in BEAD funds, in addition to more money from other federal programs.
CBO’s mapping effort will help leaders determine how and where to spend those funds to make the biggest difference, by helping to “identify areas where the need is greater,” Gernert said.