By Kayla Zacharias
The COVID-19 pandemic has shined light on equity issues across Colorado, as impacts have often been felt disproportionately by minority and low-income families. However, the uneven distribution of infrastructure, such as broadband, has been an issue for decades – especially in rural areas of the state.
Due to rugged terrain and a low median income, San Luis, Colorado, has long struggled with providing internet access to locals. Some residents of San Luis appreciate its secluded nature and hadn’t felt a need to be connected in this way until the pandemic struck; but now, many students and professionals have no choice but to work from home.
For some students, doing their schoolwork now requires a significant amount of extra effort. Carmelita Rael, a high school sophomore (and daughter of the local school district’s principal), has to drive to a graveyard a few miles from her home to get the internet access she needs to complete her school work. As a result, her grades have suffered.
Thankfully, not all students in San Luis have had the same experience in their transition to online school. Downtown, fiber optic cables provide high speed internet access that allows entire families to work at the same time, and prices are relatively affordable.
Still, cost may be enough to price some families out; but the big cause for concern is the uneven geographical distribution of access.
“Here in San Luis proper, I have fiber optic coming to my house, but I live on Main Street. Only a small portion of the community lives downtown,” said Jason Medina, director of the San Luis Valley Small Business Development Center. “The population that lives on the outskirts of San Luis is much bigger than those of us right here in town.”
Historically, it’s been up to local and county officials to apply for grants and secure funding for upgrades to infrastructure. In rural areas, the town staff is often small and has a long list of obligations; applying for grants typically comes further down the list than day-to-day necessities, if it doesn’t fall off entirely.
Spurred by the pandemic, Colorado’s legislators have stepped up and made a real attempt to remedy the issue. In December, they passed House Bill 1001 to help provide internet access to families with children, giving $20 million to the Connecting Colorado Student Grant Program. Throughout the state, tens of thousands of kids either don’t have internet access at all, or don’t have a strong enough connection for multiple members of the family to be working online at once. The money from HB 1001 isn’t enough to give every child in Colorado internet access, but it’s a good start.
Grants will be distributed by the Colorado Department of Education, and although they haven’t made their way to students yet, the plan for distribution focuses on equity: districts with a high percentage of children who quality for free or reduced-price lunch, as well as communities with a known lack of internet access, will be given priority. This means towns like San Luis have a good chance at securing internet access for their students.
However, modern infrastructure was lacking in rural areas of Colorado before the pandemic, and the need will likely continue to exist after it’s over. Michelle Murphy, executive director of Colorado Rural Alliance, told the Colorado Sun that one-time or short-term fixes are “not the answer for rural Colorado.”
In addition to pandemic-related relief, the state and federal government offer other resources for infrastructure and development. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides rural development grants and loans for broadband, as well as renewable energy, housing and several other infrastructure needs. Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies acknowledges that access to broadband is strongly correlated with economic wellbeing, and administers grants from a Broadband Fund.
As the pandemic comes to an end and related relief packages dwindle out, supporting and expanding these long term resources will become increasingly critical.