Vt. auditor raises concerns on state’s multimillion broadband buildout

Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 10:55 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The expansion of Vermont’s broadband network is being called one of the largest infrastructure projects in state history, and that connection will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In a new report, Vermont’s auditor cautions that the windfall also has potential pitfalls.

More than $120 million has been spent on recent broadband infrastructure upgrades and much more spending is in the future. “Because of so much federal money--it’s not just going to Vermont, it’s going to every state in the country,” said Vermont Auditor Doug Hoffer

With such high demand -- and ongoing supply chain challenges -- that’s raising the price of projects. In a recent report, Hoffer says the Green Mountain State needs to have a plan to finance future projects.

“Everybody is going to be looking for fiber -- all the related parts the system needs and workers -- so the sooner the state and CUDs and the board can get certainty about how much and when, the better,” Hoffer said.

In addition to potential gaps in future funding, the report highlights varying experience levels among the state’s six communication districts, a lack of transparency with the public and future fiber purchase costs.

Vermont Community Broadband Deputy Director Robert Fish says they aren’t surprised by the issues raised in the report and feel as though they’ve taken steps to mitigate them. “We’re looking closely at the business plans of each of the districts. Each district is different, each district is at a different phase. We’re looking for other funding opportunities,” he said.

“We’ve started a workforce development plan. We have training starting in April to train next year’s technicians so we don’t see a labor gap next year,” added VCBB Executive Director Christine Hallquist.

But even if the construction details within the CUDs are ironed out, Hoffer says future costs still raise red flags.

Vermont Community Broadband says they won’t know about federal funds until at least June and if it falls short of expectations, the burden could fall on the state. “On one hand, it’s been estimated twice that much will be necessary to build out the system--every last mile. That’s kind of a problem because if you don’t get free money, you have to pay interest on the debt incurred to borrow that money,” Hallquist said.

The report concludes that the total estimated costs to build a universal broadband network in Vermont will ultimately total $600 million to $800 million. With the current plans, VCBB hopes 60% of those funds will come in the form of state, federal, or private grants. Hoffer says ignoring the risks outlined in the report could jeopardize the state’s goals.

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