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Vt. officials say communication districts will play key role in $250M broadband push

Published: Jul. 20, 2021 at 5:21 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - More than half of Vermont homes lack high-speed internet connections, but officials say that could change in as little as five to seven years thanks to a quarter of a billion dollars in federal pandemic relief.

Back in the 1930s, the Rural Electrification Act lit up homes and connected them in ways never before possible. Today, it’s internet connectivity that’s lacking and Vermont is making plans to spend $250 million from the federal government to get broadband to the last mile.

“I am confident that the stage is set to get this done correctly,” said F. X. Flinn with EC Fiber, the state’s first Communications Union District that formed in 2016. He believes the group’s community-owned model that has already made broadband available to 14,000 locations in east-central Vermont is the way to go. “We have shown it is possible to build fiberoptic service out to every nook and cranny on the grid in rural Vermont and there are a number of people all around the state who are focused on taking that model and adapting it for their areas.”

Nine Communication Union Districts are looking to follow EC Fiber’s example. The state of Vermont’s most recent telecommunications report says there are 51,000 homes in the state which are underserved or not served at all with broadband internet, and another 185,000 which have broadband service mostly coming through outdated DSL, that is not fast enough to reliably sustain basic tasks such as Zoom interviews, streaming videos, or sending large files.

“It’s long overdue. Health care, education, finance -- there are so many things that it’s restrictive when you have limited to no activity,” said Sean Kio, the chair of the newly formed Northwest CUD. Kio, who himself relies on DSL, says he understands the realities that thousands of other Vermonters face and that were made even more glaring during the pandemic. “It was almost impossible for us to work from home at times. Video calls upload large flies. It would take us days to upload anything larger than a gig, taking hard drives and thumb drives back and forth to the office.”

Governor Phil Scott recently signed off on distributing $150 million from the American Rescue Plan to help CUDs get up and running. The money will be handed out by former gubernatorial candidate and newly appointed Vermont Community Broadband Board chair Christine Hallquist. “I’m convinced that if we implement this technology, Vermont is going to be even more attractive of a destination. If we look at climate change and possible climate migration -- what we saw happen with COVID -- we are going to be seeing tremendous social changes happening in Vermont. Most areas that are rural today might not be rural tomorrow. So, if we don’t think about our future, it is going to happen in ways we don’t want it to happen,” Hallquist said.

The goal is for these CUDs to run fiber lines down even the most rural roads. Residents can then choose to pay for the monthly service. Just what those end-user costs will be is unclear at this point, but this federal money will give a big lift to the CUDs.

CUD officials say they will be looking into ways to further drive down the costs for people who cannot afford the prices, or as using CUDs as a tool to create competition to drive down the costs of private companies.

A new state report concludes that 40% of state highways and 63% of Vermont homes don’t have reliable cell phone service. Officials say the vast network of broadband coverage will provide the groundwork for better phone service in rural areas also.

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