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Rep. Story: Colorado’s broadband funding can be a boon for jobs

May 29, 2024

This story was originally published in the Gazette here.

Colorado is slated to receive $826.5 million in federal funding through President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, and this year released another $113 million from the state’s Capital Projects Fund, all to expand broadband access across the state. In addition to closing Colorado’s digital divide, this historic funding has the potential to create thousands of jobs in the process — but only if we hold the companies deploying it accountable to Colorado taxpayers.

State legislators recently had the opportunity to put parameters around this nearly $1 billion broadband expansion that would have ensured the creation of long-term, good paying jobs, and promoted a safe build-out and a quality network. Despite sailing through both House committees, passing on the House floor, and passing in the Senate Business Affairs & Labor committee, the bill was purposefully held up on the Senate Appropriations calendar.

Now, it’s up to Colorado’s Broadband Office to make sure those guardrails are established and that this historic funding creates good paying jobs in Colorado, while prioritizing a well-trained local workforce that will deploy broadband equitably and safely.

Passing HB24-1245 would have been a guarantee to Coloradans everywhere that the state’s upgraded and expanded broadband infrastructure would last for generations to come. This bill would have ensured networks were built responsibly and sustainably by workers making family-sustaining wages and benefits.

Across the country, we see internet companies cutting corners and jobs in the industry getting worse. Companies are outsourcing an increasing share of broadband deployment work to contractors, who are often, undertrained and unfamiliar with local infrastructure. When contractors are paid by the job, they often speed through the work, cutting corners and putting safety and quality at risk.

While the companies might save a buck, it is our local governments and residents who pay the price: millions in repairs to infrastructure and private property damaged by contractors’ shoddy work, or even dangerous accidents that put residents and local businesses at risk.

The bill would have required that the companies that receive public dollars to build broadband pay their workers a family-sustaining wage, also known as prevailing wage, which studies show promotes productivity, reduces injury rates, and helps address the shortage of skilled labor.

While legislators failed to pass this law, the state’s broadband office has the power to hold ISPs to this higher standard. It’s crucial they do this now to ensure the money goes into Colorado’s economy, instead of to low-road contractors. Nearly a billion dollars are at stake, and Coloradans deserve a high quality network and high quality jobs, of which thousands will be needed for this massive investment to be fully realized in the years to come.

Colorado’s Broadband Office can ensure a higher standard by collecting and publishing workforce plan information; prioritizing applicants that commit to using a directly hired, local workforce; and looking for applicants with robust in-house training programs.

The Communications Workers of America, which boasts 3,552 members across Colorado, has made significant investments in its workforce development and apprenticeship programs to help meet this need. If we want to develop the workforce that will be needed to build and maintain these networks, we need to make sure these jobs are good jobs.

Colorado has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capitalize on this opportunity for jobs and to build a quality high-speed network that will last, but only by choosing to work with ISPs that invest in good jobs and a sustainable workforce. The stability created in communities by long-term, good-paying career-oriented jobs pays dividends in local economic growth.

We cannot risk this historic opportunity to close our country’s digital divide with haphazard build outs by underpaid contractors who lack the training and experience needed to build a quality product. Statewide connectivity and good-paying jobs are things all Coloradans should be able to get behind, and that’s why it’s critical that the Colorado Broadband Office follow through.

Sandra Parker is a lobbyist, organizer, and activist for the Communications Workers of America. She has been a union member and activist for 25 years. She is married and lives in Aurora. Rep. Tammy Story moved to Colorado in 1987 with her husband, Mike. For four years, she was a member and leader with the Jeffco Associations Legislative Forum, which is dedicated to discussions concerning education legislation with various stakeholders.

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