The federal and state emergency declarations brought about by the global pandemic have highlighted just how many aspects of Vermonters lives are affected by access or to high quality broadband. Vermonters rely on high speed affordable broadband to access the global economy and markets, education, healthcare and government services. Vermonters may not yet recognize it, but our ability to protect privacy and freedom of speech also rely on well regulated access to an open internet.
The Vermont Legislature passed groundbreaking broadband legislation in the pre-pandemic 2018 and 2019 sessions.
Act 169 of 2018 required all internet traffic to be treated equally in Vermont. This “net neutrality” legislation resulted in the American Cable Association, CTIA, NCTA, New England Cable & Telecommunications Association and USTelecom suing the State of Vermont for trying to regulate internet service at the state level.
Act 79 0f 2019 acknowledged that the market style regulation of telecommunications infrastructure had left much of rural and poor Vermont behind and that federal preemption had largely protected for profit internet providers from state mandated expansion to harder to serve rural areas of Vermont. With nearly unanimous support, the Vermont Legislature supported efforts to incentivize and support the formation of Communications Union Districts (CUD) – municipalities formed by two or more municipalities coming together to plan, finance and build universal high speed broadband.
Two such CUDs formed in 2019 in southern Vermont: Deerfield Valley Fiber CUD and Southern Vermont CUD. We are fortunate to have talented and committed volunteers leading those efforts. Our CUDs pre-pandemic formation has been helpful as the governor’s administration, legislators, and community volunteers have raced to bring forward short term solutions and accelerate longer term efforts using Cares Act funding as outlined in Act 137 of 2020.
Make no mistake, our CUDs have a steep hill to climb as volunteer organizations. While they are supported by the Legislature, the Scott Administration and a number of philanthropic and advocacy organizations, their work is being undermined and actively opposed by the same providers suing Vermont for the right to remain unregulated, large national corporations with extremely deep pockets for lobbyists and lawyers. In the Vermont Statehouse cable providers, wireless providers and the incumbent telephone providers have contracted with seven of the top lobbying firms in the state. And what is the aim of these companies who are investing hundreds of thousands in lobbying in Vermont every year? To maintain the status quo – providing service and innovation to those living in the least expensive places to maintain infrastructure and denying service in rural Vermont where even the copper phone lines are degrading.
As Vermont’s towns and citizens continue to organize and persevere, in the 2021/22 legislative session expect changes to state regulations to allow regulated Vermont partners to more easily support the innovative work of our CUDs, protections of the public interest and greater financing tools and funding.
Every state in America is trying to solve the problem of lack of access to rural broadband, and Vermont is keeping pace.