The Challenges Of Bringing Broadband To Vermont's Hills And Hollows

Feb 24, 2019

The promise of modern communications has bypassed many people and many rural communities in Vermont. And once again, the Legislature and the governor are promising to do more to deliver broadband to underserved areas.

Broadband internet is universally seen as key to economic development, education and improving the quality of life. Yet at Jenny Green's house in North Danville, the anachronistic tones of a dial-up modem are not a reminder of the past. It’s how she connects with the digital world today.

A blue wheel turned slowly clockwise on her computer screen as Green waited for a website to load.

“I would say this is longer than usual," Green said on this particular occasion. "And frankly, when it gets like this, I just say the heck with it."

Almost five minutes passed before the page slowly appeared.

“I’ve lectured all my friends to not send email to this email address because if there’s more than two, it takes forever for them to load," she said. "God forbid there’s a picture."

When Green wants faster speed, she’ll drive into Danville to the library or local bakery. Sometimes she’ll go down to the community center in the village, park outside and use their Wi-Fi. But these connections are not secure.

Green knows she’ll soon have to do much more online, such as banking, and for that she needs a much faster and safer connection.

“The reality of something just like paying bills — I can imagine the day is coming when you can’t pay them with a stamp,” she said.

Green’s internet inconvenience also has a financial cost. She lives alone in a beautifully renovated farmhouse but, at 83, she eventually wants to move to town. She knows her North Danville place will fetch a lower price without adequate internet.

"The internet is a utility at this point; it is a necessity in the state of our culture. And for it not to be provided statewide — every hollow, every mountaintop, all over — is unacceptable." — Jenny Green, North Danville

Living and working in the broadband backwater has a financial cost for the state as a whole.

Vermont has an aging population and a dwindling workforce. Thirty-something Jonathan Baker is the type of person the state wants to attract, but he’s slowed down by his internet connection.

“I’m in that demographic they’re looking for: You know, these tech workers that work remotely,” he said.

Baker is chief technology officer for Gain Life, a startup based in Boston that develops lifestyle-based health improvement programs.

He’s got internet at his home office outside of Danville, but it’s a fairly slow DSL service “which maxes out at about 7 down and 1 up, which is just — you know, it's late ‘90s speeds, more or less," Baker said. "It’s just terrible."

A quick explanation: Those numbers refer to speeds at which data can move, so Baker is saying he gets 7 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 for uploading. That’s well below the current minimum definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission, which is 25 Mbps download and 3 up. Fiber-optic internet to the home can deliver much faster speeds, at 100 down and 100 up.

“Anytime there’s an application deployment, I need to upload sometimes gigabytes of data to the cloud. Whenever that happens, especially if it’s urgent, I have to go to a coworking space in Lyndonville,” Baker said. “Because otherwise, uploading a gigabyte of data on the connection I have at the house is hours and hours and hours.”

Last year, the state announced a program that can spend up to $10,000 apiece to attract remote workers to Vermont. Baker said the state should instead allocate the money to improving broadband.

“The whole motivation behind that is to move away from the cities. So people will say, ‘Oh well, you know those people, they can move to Burlington or Montpelier, right? Where there’s good internet,’” Baker said. “Well that’s not what we want to do. The whole idea behind being a remote worker is you can, you know, move to a rural area and live kind of a lifestyle.”

Katherine Sims, the director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative, has made improving broadband a top priority for the underserved region.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

The lack of internet is particularly acute in the Northeast Kingdom, where only about 47 percent of residents and business have access to broadband that meets the FCC’s minimum definition. Statewide, 73 percent of the addresses are served by internet at those speeds or greater.

Katherine Sims is director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative, an organization working to improve economic and community development in the region. She said the NEK is lagging farther and farther behind the rest of Vermont, even compared to other rural areas, so broadband is a big focus of her work these days.

“When you don’t have access to internet, or internet that's reliable or high-speed enough, it means you can’t work remotely and do your job,” Sims said. “It means your kid might, you know, not have access to the educational opportunities that other kids with higher-speed internet do.”

This digital divide is not new; it has roots in a deregulated telecom world that’s left rural areas behind. Clay Purvis, the state’s director of telecommunications and connectivity, said we’re living with the legacy of the federal government’s laissez-faire approach to regulation.

“We don’t have the authority to regulate this service, so we can’t tell providers, 'You have to provide this service,'" Purvis said. "That’s how we originally got universal telephone service."

Unlike traditional basic telephone service, Purvis said, internet and cable companies are not required to serve a customer.

“Broadband is kind of open to the vagaries of competition. And federal law, the federal policy, has always been light touch: ‘We’re going to not regulate this; We’re going to let the free market solve it.’ And so urban areas and rural areas are divided,” he said. “There’s no parity.”

"Broadband is kind of open to the vagaries of competition. And federal law, the federal policy, has always been light touch: 'We're going to not regulate this; We're going to let the free market solve it.' And so urban areas and rural areas are divided. There's no parity." — Clay Purvis, Department of Public Service

Bringing broadband to the hinterlands is not cheap. The state estimates it will cost $500 million to $1.4 billion to bring fiber-optic internet all around Vermont. The state obviously doesn’t have that kind of money, but there is an intense focus on broadband this legislative session. 

Gov. Phil Scott wants to raise $1 million in bonds to help communities with connectivity projects, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson has said broadband is a top priority.

Putting that priority into action is a main focus of the House Energy and Technology Committee. The committee's vice chair, indepdendent Dover Rep. Laura Sibilia, said a bill being drafted now includes some state bond money and would add a person to the Department of Public Service to help towns figure out how best to pursue projects.

“We want to provide enough support for rural towns where, you know, we’ve got a farmer and a teacher and a seamstress maybe ... running the town. They‘re not telecommunications experts. So we want to make sure that we give them a chance to help their people and that we provide enough support,” Sibilia said. “So that’s what I think we’re trying to do here this year.”

Rep. Laura Sibilia, an independent from Dover, is vice chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee that's working on a bill to provide money and technical support to communities working to boost broadband.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Back at Jenny Green’s house in North Danville, we’ve waited while the New York Times webpage slowly loads on her laptop.

We’ve joked about the snails-pace service — and the delay gave this reporter time to sample some of her delicious home-baked oatmeal raisin cookies — but Green also made a serious point about a state struggling to serve its citizens with an essential tool of modern life:

“The internet is a utility at this point; it is a necessity in the state of our culture,” she said. “And for it not to be provided statewide — every hollow, every mountaintop, all over — is unacceptable.”

What’s needed, Green said, is a public works program on the scale of the Rural Electrification Administration that brought electricity to most of the Northeast Kingdom during the Depression.

But for now, as soon as the snow subsides a bit, Green said she’ll probably buy a satellite dish for improved internet. The state doesn’t count that service as broadband, but Green said it may be better than nothing.

Clarification 9:42 a.m. Feb. 25, 2019.  The story was updated to clarify that not every corner of the Northeast Kingdom was reached with electricity service during the Depression. The towns of Victory and Granby did not get electrified until 1963, making them the last towns in Vermont to be served.