Can existing broadband handle state's 'remote workers' proposal?

Published: Jul. 25, 2018 at 5:24 PM EDT
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With the state of Vermont offering $10,000 incentives to relocate and work in the Green Mountain State, nearly 2,000 people have said they're ready to move. But with numerous locations in the state still without basic broadband access, can those "remote workers" stay connected?

Marnie Defreest works from home in Warren. She says internet access can be a problem for rural areas, and if people plan to move here to work remotely it could pose a challenge.

"It's very challenging and like I said, I'm really lucky because we have it here, but there are so many towns that have that," Defreest said. "Nowadays you see kids, they're never not on their phone, they're never not using their phone, so if they come to Vermont and they bike and they hike and they swim and they do all the wonderful things we have here but then they can't work, there's no incentive, there's no drive to get them up here."

Vermont Department of Public Service Commissioner June Tierney says they've been working to get all Vermonters access to high-speed internet.

"We are not the only state in this position, there are several other states across the country that have rural characteristics such as ours, but that's cold comfort to the person who doesn't have internet access," she said.

Right now more than 20,000 locations in Vermont are without basic broadband.

"It's going to take a lot of money, that's for sure. People have different ideas about where it's something that ought to be funded at the federal level the way our electrification was historically in the state," Tierney said.

About 73 percent of Vermont locations meet the Federal Communications Commission's definition of broadband according to the Department of Public Service. Ninety-three percent have basic broadband.

Irv Tomae is the chair of EC Fiber, a municipal district made up of 23 towns in Vermont that is working to get high-speed internet access to people across Vermont. They have 2,700 people connected right now.

"The topic of bringing people into the state or encouraging people to stay here -- which we thoroughly agree with -- too often the emphasis is on Chittenden County where the population density is high, but so is the cost of living," Tomae said.

There is still more work to be done to get internet everywhere in Vermont, but Tomae says working remotely and enjoying the rural beauty is possible. "Vermonters are thrifty. They don't -- we don't start businesses in office parks if we could help it. You start in your basement or garage or your kitchen depending on what type of business it is. You stay at home as long as you can because that's where the overhead is involved," he said.

State officials say there are still many details to work out with the Remote Workers Program, including some of those challenges like internet access and housing.