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Connecting the last mile: Vt. lawmakers hammer out millions in broadband investments

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 6:03 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are hammering out the details of a mammoth broadband bill that would invest millions of dollars to connect to the last mile. But even then, will it be affordable for Vermonters?

Aimee Alexander is a teacher at North Country Union High School in Newport. WCAX News reached her Thursday just as Comcast was installing a high-speed router in her Derby home.

“It’s so exciting that I will finally have access to this basic utility,” Alexander said.

Like other teachers across the state, Alexander has been teaching remotely. She says at times it’s been a struggle to reach her students.

“I would have some kids not show up at all, I would have some kids show up on their cellphones, but only at the beginning of the month because they would run out of their data plan a few days into the month and they could no longer join us,” Alexander said.

Whether it’s attending remote classes, seeking telehealth or virtually seeing loved ones, the pandemic has put Vermont’s connectivity to the test. But now potential solutions are within reach because state leaders are working on allocating $150 million in pandemic relief to spend on broadband.

Most of that is going to CUD, or Communication Union Districts-- municipal entities that can finance broadband buildout on their own through grants and loans. Some critics say that the CUDs are ill-equipped to oversee broadband buildout as some are made up of volunteers, but lawmakers say a new community broadband board will centralize advice on engineering, finance and business planning decisions. The CUDs are focused on building out broadband to the last mile. But that could take up to a decade in some parts of Vermont. So what about those that need it now?

A proposal this week would have created federally funded subsidies for low-income Vermonters to access the internet sooner through cell service or low orbit satellite internet while crews simultaneously built out more robust fiber lines over the next decade.

“This is for that mother that has to go to McDonald’s to connect to the internet for their child to do homework, for that senior somewhere in a rural area that needs to be able to access telemedicine,” said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin County.

Brock’s proposal also would have created the Broadband Corps, a team that would engage in a PR blitz to reach out to underserved households to help them get connected and find financial assistance for those in need. The state and the federal governments have assistance for low-income Vermonters to access the internet, but the rates of utilization have been low.

But Brock’s proposal was tabled, with some concerned that it would hamper the business model of the CUDs.

“You’re undermining their ability to get to the last house,” said Sen. Chris Pearson, D-Chittenden County. “You’re effectively subsidizing these private companies to cherry-pick customers along the way.”

Pearson also says Vermont needs to do this right, by resisting the quick approach and waiting for fiber which won’t become obsolete in a few years.

But outside of the virtual Statehouse and back in Alexander’s virtual classroom, she says her students depend on the connection and they need broadband going forward. Alexander also says she and other teachers will want to use some of the technologies they’ve picked up even after the pandemic is over.

“This isn’t something that’s going to go away once the pandemic is over,” she said. “It’s something people need.”

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