Vermont’s rural electrification project for broadband

This commentary is by Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, and Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover. They are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Vermont House Energy & Technology Committee. 

High-speed broadband internet service is a necessity for every Vermont household, yet one out of every four households struggle without it. 

H.360, the $150 million broadband bill that passed the Vermont House last week, offers a clear, bold community-based strategy for universal broadband access. For those who have been looking for Vermont’s “rural electrification project” for broadband, this is it. 

Of the intensifying inequities we have seen laid bare in the last year, one of the most visible is Vermont’s digital divide. It is the divide between Vermonters who could participate in remote schooling and those who lost a year of education. Those who could visit with their doctor and share medical test results, and those who deferred necessary medical care. Those who could participate in local selectboard meetings or visit with a grandparent, and those who must wait for the pandemic to end. 

How did we get here? The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits states from regulating internet service. The premise was that a competitive, unregulated marketplace would provide Americans with the best and cheapest internet service. 

For many Americans, this has worked. For rural America, and much of Vermont, it has been a disaster. Because rural Vermont is a less profitable place to provide internet service, private internet service providers are less willing to build there. 

In the last decade, a hodgepodge of uncoordinated federal and state programs have attempted to incentivize internet service providers to extend broadband service to the “last mile.” While the state has poured millions of dollars, and the federal government has directed tens of millions of dollars, to try to get private service extended to rural Vermont, we have made little progress. 

In the meantime, we have laid the groundwork in Vermont for an accountable, coordinated solution to accomplish universal access to broadband service. 

In 2015, Vermont established a new type of municipality — a communications union district, whereby multiple towns could partner together to develop coordinated, regional solutions for broadband connectivity. CUDs are accountable through their governance structure of one representative from each member town. Initially there was only one CUD, ECFiber, which has been highly successful in serving a couple of dozen Upper Valley towns. Today, there are nine CUDs across the state working with nearly 80% of Vermont towns.

In the last two years, those CUDs have developed plans to build fiber to the unserved and underserved locations in their districts. Some CUDs will partner with incumbent telecom providers, others will work with electric utilities, and others will build their own fiber networks. The strategies will look different in different parts of the state, but the mission is the same: service for all. 

The broadband bill, H.360, is focused on three things to conquer Vermont’s digital divide:

  • Accountability — CUDs through their municipal membership and governance are bringing regional, community-minded solutions to address a problem where the marketplace has failed. 
  • Universality — H.360 requires connectivity solutions to serve all, not just the most profitable neighborhoods. 
  • Symmetrical service — while there are a variety of short-term, interim technologies to address connectivity issues, H.360 directs limited public dollars to fiber. Fiber is the only connectivity solution that is “future proof.” Instead of funding a short-term fix now only to face these same inequities in the future, public funds must focus on long-term solutions. 

H.360 directs $150 million to CUDs for technical engineering and design work and fiber buildout in their districts. It establishes the Vermont Community Broadband Authority to coordinate and support Vermont’s CUDs and their partners around the state. It creates a property tax exemption for new broadband infrastructure designed as a part of a plan to provide universal coverage in communities lacking broadband access. 

And, it expands broadband workforce development programs in partnership with Vermont Technical College and the Vermont Department of Labor. 

By demanding accountability, coordination, and a focus on universal symmetrical service, we can use the once-in-a-generation federal resources at our disposal to conquer Vermont’s digital divide. This is Vermont’s “rural electrification project” for broadband. 

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