Colorado's Journey to Equitable Broadband Access - ETI

Want to take a Self-Guided tour?

September 12, 2023

Colorado’s Journey to Equitable Broadband Access

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Hello and welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m Pete Pizzutillo, and I’m here joined by Brandy Reitter. She’s the executive director at the Colorado Broadband Office. Brandy, I really appreciate you being with us here today.

Brandy Reitter:

Great, thanks. It’s good to be here.

From Local Government to Broadband Crusader

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, I think we have a lot to unpack about all that you are doing in Colorado and some of your views on national progress. But before we get into that, it would be helpful to understand a little bit about how you ended up in this role. Also, tell us a little bit about your office and what your mission is.

Brandy Reitter:

Yeah. I came to this role the same way as a lot of people end up in broadband and telecommunications. They kind of fall into it. At least that’s what I’ve been told by many in the industry. I’m originally from Colorado. This is where I have been most of my life, and I chose the path of working in local government. I’ve always been a public servant working in local government. This position is probably more of a passion project for me, being the crusader of broadband. I’ve spent about 17 years in local government management. I used to be a city manager. Obviously, you’re kind of a jack of all trades and somewhat of a master of none, to some degree because there’s so much variety. It’s always a fire hose every day.

I was a town manager in rural Colorado where you see significant populations with the lack of access to broadband.  You see how crippling it is for those that don’t have adequate services. It can be hard to keep your business open on Main Street during the tourist rush when your point of sales systems are down. You are just seeing money seeping out of your bank account as those hours tick away.  Also, not being able to access healthcare remotely. It’s a lot. In rural healthcare, you’re driving hours and hours sometimes just to seek care. The rural healthcare that you can access online, if you don’t have a connection, it’s a challenge for you.

The education piece. A lot of the students in my communities had significant issues with connecting to the internet and doing homework remotely. All homework is online these days. In rural Colorado, it seemed like it impacted folks a lot. Even with library services. I would have library directors call me all the time and ask me how I can get them better internet. They need to provide services to those kids after school that don’t have a computer at their house. Then, it goes back to the digital equity side of things as well. It always was an issue, and it was between affordable housing and broadband. Those were the two things I heard the most in my communities.

When the pandemic hit, it exacerbated it. In most of these communities, you couldn’t even do any business at all during the pandemic.  It was the same with the school districts. They were giving out hotspots and computers to students. The digital equity side of this issue was really made clear during the pandemic. While the digital divide has always existed, one of the things I was thankful for was that during the pandemic, it was elevated to a stage that I’d hoped eventually would get elevated to.

When I saw this opportunity come up in the Colorado Broadband Office, I thought to myself, you know, how great would it be if I could bring my experience on the ground with these communities and having this program be well funded and bring that perspective of community and funding and broadband and where it needs to go and how it needs to be dispersed and the impact to the state. I think I could craft a really great grant program that, for us, will eventually bridge a digital divide and make sure it gets done right for the communities that I have served in.

That’s my story about how I became the executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office. Then one last thing I’ll say is that I work remotely. I get to live and work in a rural area of Colorado and Eagle. I also understand the value of having a remote workforce and having people be able to connect to the internet from an economic vitality perspective.

Uniting ISPs and the Public Sector

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, I think that’s interesting to be able to see it firsthand. I think a lot of people that we speak with see it from the other side and are trying to appreciate it and can imagine what it’d be like and some of them go out and seek that experience. But living in it and soaking it on a day-to-day basis, is really ingrained in the importance of building digital economies and telehealth. Being able to have this opportunity to influence change, I think that’s an interesting perspective. Similarly, a lot of the folks that are solving this problem from either the WISP or the ISPs are similar folks like yourself who are living in these communities.  They are experiencing it firsthand and saying, “Man, we got to do something about this stuff.”

Brandy Reitter:

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s going to take a group effort to solve the digital divide. And I think all the ISPs in the public sector are really, the partnerships are ripe for coming together and saying, “Yes, we can do this. It’s going to take everybody; it’s going to take all of our resources to do this.” We’re seeing that in our state as well.

Transforming Colorado Broadband Office’s Mission

Pete Pizzutillo:

You see this opportunity with the Colorado Broadband Office, and you apply, and you get that role. What has changed in your perspective of what that mission was and how would you state the current mission of your office today?

Brandy Reitter:

When I came to the office, we were small. Our office has been around since 2011, so I benefited from a great foundation. I think like many states out there, they’re building the plane as you’re flying it, even when you have a well-established broadband office. Our mission hasn’t changed. We’re committed to equitable access to affordable, fast, and reliable broadband service in developing statewide strategies and plans to help deliver on that promise. It includes infrastructure, and public, and private partnerships to meet the demands, and the key sectors for us are public safety, education, healthcare, transportation, and many, many others that our governor has spelled out.

For us, it’s been a little bit of a journey. When I first started, I thought that I realized what I was getting into. But then I realized that I didn’t know what I was getting into in terms of the amount of impact it had. I think if you go into it like this is going to be great. We’re going to make an impact.

But boy, the size and scale of these programs, it’s huge and it’s just an incredible opportunity. A lot of state broadband directors and their staff are tasked with creating strategies and plans for implementation. This is a book that hasn’t been written before, at least from the perspective of the funding coming directly to the states now. In the past, funding has been available. But this time around, it’s the states dictating what happens. I think that’s going to make a big difference because we know our stakeholders. We know where there are deficiencies; we know which ISPs can deliver. And I think it’s just incredible to be part of a broadband startup in the context of historical investment.

Uniting Knowledge and Experience

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, sure. You mentioned that when you got to the Broadband Office you were small. And you clarified your background in terms of a public servant municipal leader. How big are you now? What are the kinds of profile types that you think make your office successful? Help other people envision what that team looks like.

Brandy Reitter:

When I started, we had about five people back in 2011. Everyone wore multiple hats, and they were doing data. Fast forward to today, we’re about 16 people on staff, and we’re still hiring. We have one more to go, but we’ve pretty much doubled the department. I’ve spent a lot of time making sure that we have diverse individuals and a multi-generational workforce because there’s a lot of knowledge out there. I love that about our department.

There’s a lot of historical knowledge of the Colorado Broadband’s landscape that’s critical to decision-making, but also having people in the industry, having folks that specialize in marketing communications. Just for pure numbers, our GIS team, we have five individuals working hard on our broadband mapping that have a combination of about 45 years of experience.

The cool thing about it as well is our GIS lead, our manager, has 11 years of experience. She’s been there since day one, so having that experience has been great. The Broadband Deployment Board is an existing program. We were doing grant-making before the funding, and we have two managers managing that program.

Then we have communications. We have two folks doing that, and they have 17 years of experience. And then community engagement. We have one individual who’s just a rock star. She came from Denver Public Schools. She’s fluent in Spanish, which is helpful for our demographic. And she did a lot of community outreach in the Denver Public Schools. Then, we have program teams. Our program teams are made up of four individuals with a combined experience of 87 years. This is my team that has a good knowledge of the landscape in Colorado from a telecommunications perspective.

They come from industry. We have folks that are from telecom policy, business strategists, and grant administration. Those are just the people that are supporting our department. But what’s great and I’m sure a lot of states are doing this, is it’s a huge effort to pull this off, so you have to pull from other departments that support the team. We have additional resources from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. We have an assistant attorney general. For the first time in Colorado history, we have an assistant attorney general for broadband.

That’s a big deal for us, and it’s been helpful. Then, we have federal compliance and grants folks that have 25 years of doing this type of work on federal programs. We have a legislative team for broadband, so we have two people working hard on policy and legislation so that we’re able to implement these dollars and make sure that we have legislation that makes that easier for us. We have a robust team. It’s made up of diverse individuals.

Because we do work remotely, I have folks on my team that are in different areas of the state. They can be points of contact and ambassadors for our Colorado Broadband Office in the areas that they live in. Many of these individuals live in areas that are unserved or underserved, so we’re able to deploy broadband resources or at least knowledge and technical assistance to areas of the state that would be hard to get to if you lived in our population center in Denver.

The Power of Executive Support and Strategic Planning

Pete Pizzutillo:

Wow, that was great. I’ve never heard that kind of breakdown. I can appreciate some of the things you said about the multi-generational and geographic dispersal. What was most interesting is the legal and legislative support that you’re getting.

How was Colorado, I consider them on more the cutting edge of this effort. What did it take to get to where you guys are today? I’m sure it took some time, but is there anything you could put your finger on in terms of executive support or other kind of visibility or any kind of success that you’ve had in the past?

Brandy Reitter:

I guess if I were to point to one thing that I think helped us get to where we are today is support from the governor. A lot of the foundational work happened under the Hickenlooper administration. He supported it from a legislative perspective. The state bought in a long time ago into the digital divide.

Having that support at the top level was critical for the inception of the Broadband Office, but also the work that we’ve done since and support from our stakeholders. We’ve done a lot of community engagement over the years. Broadband has lived in different departments over the years, so there’s always been somebody in the state working on broadband. But we jumped two feet in 2011 and said, “Hey, not only are we going to do this, but we’re going to dedicate a department to it. We’re going to dedicate resources to it because it’s important.” I think state leadership is key.

The current governor, Jared Polis, continues that support. He’s even taken steps further to build on what Governor Hickenlooper did at the time now Senator Hickenlooper, and just really reinforced that. We’re much further ahead.

Then I guess lastly, and I know I just said it was going to be one thing. You must have a strategy because we came up with our statewide broadband strategy last year. Before that, we were doing broadband, but it wasn’t really tied to a statewide strategy. We were able to make a lot of significant investments in broadband through other departments. But now we have the data. Now we know where we need to target our funds. We know who our stakeholders are even more. Through that strategy development, we were able to do a lot of stakeholding and get a lot of input on that strategy. Data’s really important as well as you’re setting up your broadband office.

Successful Strategies for Engaging Stakeholders in Colorado’s Broadband Initiatives

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, I think the FCC’s timelines have made that clear to a lot of people. I do want to come back to the strategy question. But you’ve mentioned it a couple of times about community engagement. We hear that is a critical part, but I think folks struggle. There are different ways to engage. Educational programs or outreach programs. Can you just color in some of the things that you think have been successful to help you get your constituents engaged to help support your strategy?

Brandy Reitter:

The CBO, we’ve hosted a lot of different engagements. One of the things that I always emphasize in engagement is meeting your stakeholders where they are. This was one of the reasons why I joined the Broadband Office. I think if you’re going to help those in need, you have to go to where they are. When you get out of Denver, that Front Range area, listening to folks, and hearing what they would like to see in their broadband programs is critical. We’ve hosted and attended 130 different events over the last year. This includes engagement calls, conferences, speaking opportunities, and stakeholder meetings. I mean, you name it, we’ve done it all. We hope we continue to host bi-monthly round tables with our communities and industry — we separate those two groups.

Also, we do statewide listening tours every year. We have one coming up this summer. And we do data and mapping webinars, so anything anybody wants to know about data.  This has been top of mind quite a bit over the last several months because of FCC mapping.  We have a new Mapping Hub. It is required for us to collect data from our industry partners. But also, recognizing that not everybody is online, we end up doing a lot of big and small community engagements with our stakeholders. We communicate with more than 250 Colorado and 100 national trade media publications. We try to use that strategy to get the word out because it’s really costly to send a mailer to everybody about everything all the time and most of the time, that stuff ends up in the trash anyway.

We’ve developed relationships with a lot of small-town reporters, so people still read those small-town papers. They really do. When we need to get out to folks that aren’t on the Internet. They read the Chaffee County Times in the coffee shops. We make sure we’re tapping those folks who are boots-on-the-ground reporters to get the word out in their community. Those are some of the strategies we use.

We also use big trade publications to get the word out nationally. It’s like StateScoop, Fierce Telecom, GovTech, and a lot of those big trade publications. But our state’s big, so we have a lot of ground to cover. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. We usually try to craft our community outreach to really serve and get the word out to those communities that we’re not necessarily getting with social media and stuff. This also includes local radio stations and chambers and regional councils and governments, so we do a lot of that. Then also, leveraging your state agencies. There are a lot of newsletters your state puts out. We do the same thing. We do all of that with our associations and state agency partners.

Mitigating Risks

Pete Pizzutillo:

Sounds like a lot for 16 people, but I think that’s the scale that we need to get to. That’s the thing, is reminding people that it takes, I don’t know, 13 times to communicate with somebody before they hear you the first time. That’s impressive.

We talked a little bit about mapping, and it’s related to the BEAD funding that everybody’s focused on right now. Recently, I saw that they were going back and looking for an adjustment to the funding to account for inflation costs. I think that one of the things that is a concern is there are a lot of supply chain issues, labor constraints, and rising costs that present real risks to making sure that the strategy gets executed properly. How are you guys thinking about that in terms of your go-first strategy right now?

Brandy Reitter:

Inflation’s a real thing, and when I was in local government doing construction projects, by the time you bid something out and you go to contract, it’s increased by 15% or 20%.

I think our strategy recognizes that even the grantees who submit applications will include a contingency in their budgets. The reality is that contingency is going to be eaten up by the way inflation’s been impacting projects and just everybody, even regular citizens.

One of the things that I think we’re going to do with some of our money is recognize that this is an issue. We’ll probably have to hold some of it to make the projects whole. They’re just getting beat up by inflation when they get under construction or when they get their contractors under contract. I think that’s a prudent approach to managing the funds because we don’t want to run out of money and have projects, really great projects. They’re half, not halfway built, but they need an additional million bucks because of inflation. We’re going to be a little bit conservative there as we move forward.

Colorado’s Approach to Ensuring Broadband Accessibility and Pricing

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, I think that’s prudent. The supply chain issues aren’t much that we can deal with right now, but other than just plan accordingly. I think that part of the good stuff is the planning is still coming.

Let’s switch topics to talk a little bit about the Rural Broadband Act that Senators Moore Capito and Senator Klobuchar introduced recently. I think they introduced it in the past, kind of reintroduced it. To me, it’s interesting because it’s essentially focused on making sure that this money gets in the best hands to close the gap. But one of the things that we often talk about is your mission. You mentioned equitable access to affordable broadband. If we deliver broadband to the right people, but it’s unaffordable, do we accomplish the mission?

How are you all at the state level, thinking about not only getting it to the right people, the right place, and the right time but at the right price and the right quality as you build your strategy?

Brandy Reitter:

Yeah, that’s a great question. Affordability is one of those barriers to adoption. From our data, it is the most significant barrier to adoption outside of a lack of physical infrastructure. We’re in the process of launching our Capital Projects Fund and looking at BEAD. A lot of what we launch at the end of this month will be a precursor for BEAD.

One of the things that we’re looking at in terms of eligibility for projects and criteria is your pricing plan. It’s not enough for an applicant to submit a project that says, “Hey, we’re in compliance with the ACC, ACP. We want to know what your rate structures are. Tell us about data caps. We want to know about promotions that you might be entertaining as part of the rollout of your broadband service once you receive funds.”

Because we all know that once the infrastructure’s in the ground, what are we ensuring to make sure that it’s still affordable? We want to know long-term, what’s your affordability plan? It’s not just the ACP. We want to see tiers that reflect that because if you’re receiving a subsidy from the government, it’s safe to assume that that subsidy will subsidize the price of service.

We’re looking at those pieces. The other thing we are going to be looking at is performance data. It’s not just what’s available. We’re looking at performance data. We’re going to be looking at, okay, did you deliver on what you said you were going to deliver on? We’ll be doing that over the next couple of years with the funds that people receive. We will be monitoring because we want people to build these projects and do what they said they were going to do. That’s what we’re going to do in our grant programs.

Building Sustainable Networks through Collaboration

Pete Pizzutillo:

You mentioned earlier the importance of partnerships, the private-public partnerships or private-private partnerships. Is there any discussion early in the design phase with these partners to help them figure out how to design affordable and sustainable programs? I mean, everybody’s concerned with the ESG concerns with power, but also just shared resources. I know there have been some projects in Colorado that have been shared, Middle Mile or Open Access. Is there an encouragement or incentive for partners to think that way, rather than building these discreet proprietary networks that are designed to be low OpEx over time?

Brandy Reitter:

Part of our grant criteria is to make sure that we’re awarding projects that have that long-term sustainability plan in place and that it’s actually feasible for them to do. Over the course of our grant program, we’re going to be providing technical assistance. Again, we have industry people on our team to offer that to ISPs or public entities that want to do their own broadband network. That is something that we anticipated. We are staffed for that. So we want to make sure that people have those resources available to them.

The other thing too, we’ve set aside some funding in our treasury dollars as well as BEAD dollars to make available consultants that the state will choose to help communities and ISPs develop applications that are sustainable and resilient. Part of our goal in our Colorado Broadband roadmap is to build sustainable, reliable networks.

The state, to your point, you mentioned, we’ve made it a requirement for funding that, especially for Middle Mile must be open access, so that we don’t use public resources to build these close networks that nobody can access.

We think that leveraging existing assets or assets that can be leveraged like Middle Mile is important to the cost of doing business for ISPs. So, we support that. It’s a huge piece of our program. We do provide incentives for them to do that. The state’s been doing that for several years. And we plan to do it as part of our programs going forward.

Drawing Inspiration from Other States

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, that’s encouraging to hear. Do you see the same kind of behavior and programs in place in other states or at a national level as well?

Brandy Reitter:

Yeah, with my time in the Broadband Office, I’ve gotten to know the states that are doing broadband well. I’m also encouraged by my colleagues’ creativity and thinking outside the box. But there are a couple of states that come to mind that are doing some of the same things that we are. I look at Virginia quite a bit. They’re a comparable broadband office as well. We take all the best practices from each other in developing our broadband programs, but there’s a shared Middle Mile. There are existing grant programs for broadband last mile. The other ones that I look to as well are Massachusetts and Vermont. Especially Vermont. They have a little bit of a different model there. But they actually grant money directly to last-mile programs. They’ve been doing that for several years, and they’ve had really great success.

We have a grant program that does something very similar through the High-Cost Support Mechanism Funds. They are state dollars that we receive every year about $12 million to award out to ISPs specifically for the last mile.

There’s a combination of last mile and middle mile components that other states are doing very well, and I think you must do both. In our state, we have significant issues with our middle-mile connectivity. So, I’m always looking to see how other states fund those.

Another one in the west that I look to as well is Arizona.  Arizona uses its Department of Transportation. Their Broadband Office is in their Department of Transportation so that partnership is close. We look to their model as well. The state has a backbone, and in most cases, it’s through rural parts of the state. They set aside funding to build that middle mile that’s lacking in Arizona. And they’re embarking on a project to maybe even step more into the broadband space.

There are some states that I look to apply their best practices to what we’re doing. Everybody’s really doing good work. It’s good to see states and how they’re partnering with the private sector on some of these solutions.

Envisioning Colorado’s Broadband Future

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. Great. Thank you for that. You’re listening to The Broadband Bunch, and we’ve been speaking with Brandy Reitter. She’s the executive director at the Colorado Broadband Office. Brandy, if we jump ahead and look 24 months from now and make you use your crystal ball, where do you see Colorado on this journey?

Brandy Reitter:

This is a program that’s ever-evolving. We evolve with the federal guidance, and so we’re learning a lot as we’re going. We’re assessing what works and what doesn’t work and applying them to our programs. But over the next 24 months, we’re looking at awarding all our CPF dollars, $162 million. This will connect around 18,000 households. We think that’s a conservative number. We anticipate a lot more.

One of the things that the State of Colorado did with our State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds is we allocated $75 million of those funds to broadband. So, we’ll be finished with those programs over the next 24 months. As far as our High-Cost Support Mechanism, our Last Mile Program ISPs, we see that continuing and awarding funds to those ISPs doing the deployment in the most rural parts of our state.

Then, BEAD. If anything, we received the most questions about BEAD, Broadband Equity Access, and Deployment. Just like many states, we’re all marching towards our deadlines, but we’ll have our five-year action plan in place and our initial proposal figured out by the end of the year, and we’re doing a lot of community engagement on that, so we’re really looking forward to our BEAD allocation in June. I think that’s going to create a lot of buzz and we’ll know exactly what we’re doing, or at least how much we’re going to be allocated to communities in the private sector.

Digital equity is another piece of it. Right now, we’re developing our digital equity plan for the state. The state will receive around $21 million to award, and there are also grants for digital equity because that’s the other piece of connectivity and broadband. That’s where I know the state will be. We’ll continue to refine our approach and seek input from others to make sure that we’re doing this the way it needs to be done and what’s expected by us from our federal partners. We think we can bridge the digital divide. With a lot of these programs, it’ll make a big difference.

Setting the Stage for Success

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, it’d be exciting to see where you guys are, and hopefully, we can revisit that. Speaking directly now to the other municipal leaders listening, what can they start doing today to set them on the path of success? Not that they’re not doing it, but what is the one thing that you think would be most impactful to their local towns or communities?

Brandy Reitter:

Yeah, that’s a great question. If there was one thing that local government communities across the board can do to prepare for funding it would be to get buy-in on a vision and strategy for your community around broadband. Whenever I was in the community, I had the opportunity to establish a municipal broadband utility in a rural town, which is progressive because we had serious challenges. It all started with the vision and strategy. Through that process, you engage stakeholders, you figure out what you want to do. There are a lot of ways to do broadband in a community, and it could be from a Muni network to a public-private partnership, to just working directly with industry. I think you need to answer those questions before you embark on raising money for broadband in your community.

Just like the state, we did our strategy. It’s fine to do one-off broadband projects. But I think you get the biggest bang for your buck when everybody’s on the same page, and that includes determining your partners if it’s going to be a regional project versus a community doing their own thing. Those are important questions to answer before you make an application. If you can answer those questions, your application will be a lot stronger. It’ll meet a lot of criteria for the state, and we’ll know that your community’s bought into the process. We don’t want to award grants to communities that haven’t taken those steps because it’s just not as successful in terms of an outcome. So that’s the biggest thing that I would encourage communities to do.

Connecting Broadband Enthusiasts and Sharing Stories

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, it’s good advice. Brandy, I want to thank you for unpacking your journey and everything that you all have going on at the Colorado Broadband Office. I think there’s some great insight for other folks who are maybe not as far along as you are. How can people reach out to you and learn more about your office?

Brandy Reitter:

You can learn more about our office on our website. It’s This is the best way to get in touch with our department. We have a lot of great resources on our webpage, as well as Listservs and newsletters to sign up for and staff contact. It is

Pete Pizzutillo:

Hey, Brandy, I want to thank you for your time.

Brandy Reitter:

Thank you so much. It’s great to meet you guys and discuss broadband. It’s a really great time in our country to work on it, so hopefully, we can make an impact and finally bridge the digital divide.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah, it sounds like you guys are well on your way. This is going to wrap up this episode of The Broadband Bunch. I want to thank everybody for listening. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve learned a lot, but you probably are into all things broadband. We invite you to look at our website at Living on the site we have weekly episodes and additional resources. We really would love to share your story. So, if you have an interesting story like Brandy does, then let us know. Thank you again for listening.