What's Vermont Doing To Improve Broadband Access?
The pandemic has shifted even more of our lives online. So what's being done to address Vermont's internet inequities?
That's what Maggie Eppstein of Hinesburg asked Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered journalism project.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening if you can! But we also provide a transcript below.
Subscribe to Brave Little State, so you never miss an episode:
Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Angela Evancie: John Dillon — or JD, as you are called in the newsroom.
John Dillon: Yes.
Angela Evancie: You went to talk to today's question asker, Maggie.
John Dillon: I did. Her name is Maggie Eppstein. She lives in Hinesburg, out in the country.
John Dillon: Hi!
Maggie Eppstein: Nice to meet you.
John Dillon: Nice to meet you.
John Dillon: And I went to see her on this really beautiful but windy day in the fall. So, I was going to talk to her outside, you know, safe distance, pandemic and all of that. But because the wind was whipping around so much and it was just distorting on my mic, we went into her two-bay garage and shut the door.
[GARAGE DOOR CLOSING]
Maggie is a retired professor of computer science at UVM, although she still does research there. And she's keenly interested in education, especially how kids are doing with remote learning because of the pandemic. So she was really interested in how that's going to happen if kids can't get online.
Maggie Eppstein: And COVID-19 has really brought to the forefront the inequities in broadband coverage in Vermont. And I've been hearing politicians talk about this for a long time. But I'm wondering, what concrete steps are they actually taking to address this right now?
John Dillon: As Maggie points out, you know, the pandemic has exposed the inequities out there for who has broadband and who doesn't. Those inequities were there before COVID, but when the pandemic hit, they were just brought out in such sharp relief.
[MUSIC: "MATAMOSCAS" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]
According to the state, 71,000 addresses, so physical buildings, don't have access to the federal definition of broadband, which is a download speed of 25 megabytes per second and an upload of three, that's like basic broadband. And they may have DSL, very slow internet — I’ve interviewed somebody who has dialup — or they may have none at all. You know, I talked to somebody who climbed halfway up Mount Hunger once to get a good cell signal to upload a data file with his iPhone during the pandemic.
So large parts of the state can't get internet fast enough to work at home, get their health care at home and learn at home — all the things that we asked the public to do to keep everybody safe.
And then there's the cost. You know, it's not cheap. You could have that 25/3 line going by your house, but it may cost you $70 to $100 a month for cable. So that creates another big group of haves and have-nots, another inequity, because for some, that's just too big a cost. It's a choice between broadband and food in some cases. And those were the inequities that were brought forward.
But, Maggie, it turns out she's got sort of a more personal reason for seeking this answer. Her son, he’s also a computer guy. He's a software engineer; he lived in the Boston area. And when COVID hit last spring, he pulled up stakes. I mean, he sold his house, got a same-day offer, boom. Moved back to Vermont, bought a big piece of property in Lamoille County. And he wanted to build a house and start a family up here.
Maggie Eppstein: But they discovered they can't get any broadband on their property, which, of course, they need to do telecommuting. So I'm thinking, hey, this is exactly the kind of demographic that Vermont's been trying to attract. We've got a young couple in their mid-30s, well-educated, good jobs, want to start a family, add to the tax base. But we're really putting a barrier to people like that moving here if they can't get broadband.
[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE THEME SONG]
Angela Evancie: From Vermont Public Radio, this is Brave Little State. I'm Angela Evancie.
John Dillon: I'm John Dillon. Here on the show we answer questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience.
Angela Evancie: Because we think our journalism is better when you're a part of it. Today:
Maggie Eppstein: Hi, I’m Maggie Eppstein.
John Dillon: A question about disparities in internet service across Vermont — a problem highlighted by the necessity of working, learning and getting health care at home, all online.
Maggie Eppstein: So what is really being done? What concrete steps are being done to address this?
Angela Evancie: We have support from VPR sustaining members. Welcome.
Vermont's broadband situation
Angela Evancie: John Dillon, it is very fortuitous that you are the reporter on this episode because you are kind of our in-house expert on broadband in Vermont. And so you're a great person to help answer Maggie's question.
Really high-level, what is the state doing? Like, is there even a plan to address this problem?
John Dillon: Yeah, there's a plan. There's actually many plans. But Maggie, she wanted to know about concrete steps. Like, what are we actually doing? And the state is actually doing and providers are doing a bunch of stuff, some of it with federal money that we got under COVID relief money. Some of it was already in place and in progress under legislation that passed in 2019. So there's a lot of work underway, sort of infused by millions of dollars in federal money.
Angela Evancie: This is the CARES money, is that right?
John Dillon: Yes. So you’ll recall Vermont, I think, got $1.2 billion in the CARES Act. And what the Legislature did, they set aside $17 million to work on broadband using this federal CARES money. And the money came with a couple of big strings attached. It has to be spent by the end of this year, and it has to be pandemic related. And the calendar year is ending very soon. So there is pressure on designing projects that could actually get people service by the end of the year and make the best use of this federal money.
I talked to this guy, Clay Purvis, he's been with the state for a while. He's the state's telecommunications chief and handles all these issues. And he says there's really no secret to getting broadband.
Clay Purvis: There's no magic to this. The two things that you really need are time and money.
John Dillon: It takes time and it takes money.
Clay Purvis: And with the CARES Act, we lack time. We have money, but we lack time. And before the CARES Act came along, we had time, but we lacked money. We need both of them at the same time to really solve this problem.
How did we get here?
John Dillon: I could back up Angela and tell you sort of how we got here and why places like Vermont don't have good broadband.
[MUSIC: "DISCOVERY HARBOR" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]
Just walk you through, like, how did this happen? How can some places of the country, some places in the world, have this lightning-fast service? In Finland, for example, it's a basic necessity that the government provides. You could be above the Arctic Circle in Finland and get online.
Not so in the United States of America, where it was left up to the private sector under a bill that passed in 1996 in Congress called the Telecommunications Act of 1996. And basically that deregulated telecommunications, and all these new services, including internet, were left up to the private market to deliver. And that was a big departure because in the old days, telephone service, electricity service, they were seen as necessities. Utilities had an obligation to serve. Not so with broadband. It was considered a competitive service that the market was going to provide.
And in states like Vermont, where you have customers that are spread out maybe one or two or three per mile, it is not cost effective for companies to compete for those customers. That's simple economics. So that's how we kind of got here. It was deregulated, left up to the private market, not seen as a necessity until it was.
And the state has a goal of having all of Vermont covered by 100 megabits per second service, symmetrical up and down, really superfast Internet, by 2024, four years from now. But that same report, 2018 Telecommunications Plan, says it costs a billion dollars. And that's far and away much more than the state of Vermont has to do such work — I mean, by orders of magnitude.
Angela Evancie: And so that's how we got ourselves into a position where we need a billion dollars to address our inequities. And right now, we're working with — how much CARES did you say has been allocated? $17 million?
John Dillon: $17 million. And what is it? A month and a half left to spend it.
What are we gonna do?
Angela Evancie: So what are we going to do?
[MUSIC: "BOROUGH" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]
John Dillon: So there are several things the state is doing mandated by the Legislature to do with that $17 million. They've actually given out $12 million or so to providers in grants for projects that could be done in the short term, and that includes things like ECFiber, which is a 10-year-old internet service provider, a nonprofit sort of based on this municipal model of a communications union district, it's the most successful one. They've got a big project to bring broadband to mobile home parks. Tiny telephone companies, Topsham Telephone, has some money to bring broadband to its customers.
Then there's, I think it's half a million dollars for direct help to customers to help pay their bills, if they can show that they need broadband as a result of the pandemic and have difficulty paying. It's not even an income test — you’ve just got to be able to show that. So the state is trying to help you pay your bills. Or buy it. You know? [Then] there's like work being done to beef up Wi-Fi hotspots.
So there's a lot of initiatives using that $17 million. And the best guess is, 10,000 or so people will be reached and potentially get online through these efforts.
Angela Evancie: So that is a concrete answer, at least part of an answer to Maggie's question. It doesn't sound like all 70,000-plus addresses are necessarily going to get hooked up. But 10,000.
John Dillon: It's a big start and it's sort of what could be done. And that's, you know, that's one of the really interesting things about this issue, as I've looked into it over the years, is it's surprisingly low-tech. Some of the impediments, you know, you think about broadband, computers, you know, fiber optics. But the telephone pole — your everyday mundane telephone pole — is actually a piece of vertical real estate. And when and where that pole gets the fiber for broadband has been a huge issue.
I talked to ECFiber about this, and they one time had to wait like six months for the pole owner to say, “OK, you can come and do the work now.” So there's been substantial progress on that. But you know that that was a real eye-opener for me at one point to realize, you know, this isn't high technology that's blocking this in so many cases. It's money and it's just figuring out where to put the lines and when and, you know, speeding up that stuff, getting rid of the red tape.
[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE STINGER]
And now, outer space
Angela Evancie: Well, JD, this seems like a good time to talk about a technology that would sort of leapfrog a lot of the barriers you’ve just outlined. Should we talk about Starlink?
John Dillon: Yeah. There was another big part of Maggie's query. She wanted to know about a company called Starlink. Everybody knows Elon Musk, the guy behind Tesla. He's launched satellites. He's launched a Tesla car into orbit. And he is launching hundreds of low Earth-orbiting satellites that could completely change how broadband is delivered around the world. There's already satellite internet, but they are what they call geostationary, so the satellite is in one place, and they are tens of thousands of miles up in the air. So there's a long delay. It's not great service.
[MUSIC: "PXL CRAY" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]
This low-earth orbiting system is supposed to provide really fast internet with none of those technological problems that plague the existing satellite system. It works. You basically unpack it out of a suitcase and there's a little dish, you aim it at the sky, you plug in your device and you can get online.
So Maggie really wanted to know, what is happening with Starlink? And her son, he's a guy named Stuart Heinrich, and he signed up. He says, “OK, that's great. You know, I'm going to sign up for this as a beta user.”
Angela Evancie: And just backing up: Maggie's son, Stuart, this is the same son that bought land to then find out he didn't have internet.
John Dillon: Yeah.
Stuart Heinrich: So now, really, the plan is Starlink. That's kind of the only hope at this point. And I've been following all the news on that pretty closely.
John Dillon: So he's really hoping for Starlink.
Stuart Heinrich: I mean, the internet is literally the only requirement, I think, for a person to live. I don't need power, because it's easy to put up solar panels. I've done it myself. I don't need water, because I can build a well. Like, there's no other public utility that I actually need other than solar. And I think that's what's been keeping people out of this state.
John Dillon: According to what is on the technical literature about Starlink's service, it's going to serve the very northern part of the United States, so around the Canadian border, which would work. Conceivably.
Stuart Heinrich: It sounds like it could be great. I hope it works out. But I'm not really sure what their timetable is, obviously, because it's all secret.
John Dillon: Starlink actually met with the state of Vermont, three of their company people. And Clay Purvis said, “What's happening with Starlink?” And it doesn't sound like it's going to happen anytime soon to help Maggie or her son.
And in fact, I tried to sign up. I did sign up as a beta user. I haven't heard from Starlink. I reached out to the three people who met with the state of Vermont. They haven't replied to me.
Angela Evancie: I mean I — [DOG BARKS IN BACKGROUND]. Oh. I told you that was going to happen.
It sounds so sort of futuristic, almost like a Space Force-type-thing, but it seems like maybe it could happen at some point down the road — that we could have just this whole completely new generation of technology that makes it easier to access the internet in these more sort of hills and valleys of Vermont that aren't covered right now.
John Dillon: Oh, I mean, globally, it could make the difference.
[MUSIC: "PXL CRAY" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]
Whether it will be by the end of the year, as Starlink has said, for rolling out North American service or not, I don't know. But I think this technology is going to happen sooner rather than later, and it will completely change how internet service is provided, especially in rural areas.
What it also will change is the night sky. And Maggie's husband is an astronomer and doesn't like [the satellites] because all these rockets going up interferes with the view of the stars and the planets. That's the downside. The upside is, this technology could completely change the broadband world as we know it.
But until then, we are grounded in the reality of what we got and when we have to have it.
Rural Electrification 2.0?
John Dillon: And, you know, I talked to Matt Dunne, former state senator, former gubernatorial candidate, former Google exec. He lives in Hartland Four Corners. And he's got a nonprofit called Center [on] Rural Innovation. And he's got a piece of this, almost half a million dollar planning grant that the state awarded for a COVID Response Telecommunications [Recovery] Plan.
And Matt, you know, he thinks big. And what he says — and a lot of people have talked about this over the years — is that the real solution has to be some sort of federal effort on the scale of Rural Electrification that took place in the 20s and 30s. And Matt draws some really interesting parallels to those times and the ones we're living through now.
Matt Dunne: The divisions in the ability for people to learn because they were not able to read at night as effectively if they didn't have electricity, the ability to have state-of-the-art hospitals, or to be able to have the kinds of jobs of the future, which in those cases were manufacturing, were completely limited by the accessibility of electricity. Today, broadband and the lack of access to broadband creates similar kinds of barriers.
John Dillon: So he and others talk about the scale of the solution that can only be met where internet is defined as a basic necessity and the government is going to decide, “It's a public service. Here's our money behind it.”
Matt Dunne: It was really exciting to see the House of Representatives last year in Congress put forward a bill that could do just that.
John Dillon: And Matt told me about a piece of legislation that Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, very well-known congressman down there, he introduced a bill. It passed the House of Representatives. Didn't go anywhere in the Senate.
Matt Dunne: It is a $100 billion project that would have to take place over a few years. It also had regulatory reforms.
John Dillon: That would have set up this REA-style effort. Meanwhile, what Matt Dunne says when I talked to him in terms of what he's going to propose in this report that's due next month — you know, the short term emergency telecom plan — is:
Matt Dunne: We think that there could be, you know, tens of thousands of folks that could get short-term solutions.
John Dillon: Short-term, get ‘er done type of things that hopefully would be adaptable and could be useful for long-term projects.
Matt Dunne: We are going to lay out a plan that should cover just about everyone being able to get some kind of broadband.
John Dillon: But also may not be the ultimate state-of-the art solution.
Matt Dunne: In some cases, that may still mean having to go to a central community resource, like outside of a library, or having a hot spot that would provide OK service. But we're going to lay out some options for the state and the Legislature to be able to cover folks for the short term. And we're going to make sure that as many of those can have value to the longer-term goal of having everyone connected.
But we're going to separate it up, because I think there is certainly some urgency, especially with COVID cases going back up, to make sure that we can explore every possibility to get people connected in the short term.
John Dillon: So two tracks kind of, you know: What can be done really quickly? And he's going to propose stuff that would be done, you know, first few months of 2021. And then what can we set up for later?
Angela Evancie: Well, JD, thanks for answering Maggie's question and sharing so much of your expertise. This has been a really interesting conversation.
John Dillon: You're so welcome.
[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE THEME SONG]
Subscribe to Brave Little State, so you never miss an episode:
Thanks to Maggie Eppstein for the great question. If you have a question about Vermont’s COVID response, or anything else, ask it at bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there you can sign up for our free newsletter and vote on the question you want us to tackle next. We are on Instagram or Twitter at @bravestatevt.
Special thanks to everyone who is following the public health guidance and protecting our fellow Vermonters during the pandemic. We’re heading into a long winter, but it is sooo important that we all stay vigilant.
This episode was reported by John Dillon and produced by Angela Evancie. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed and we have engineering support from Chris Albertine and Peter Engisch. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from VPR’s sustaining members. If you’re able to make a donation in any amount, you can keep our service strong for everyone. Make a gift at bravelittlestate.org/donate.
Remember: Be brave. Wear your mask.
Correction 9:20 a.m. 11/23/2020: This post was updated with the correct number for how much the state allocated for short-term broadband projects, which is $12 million.