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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Vermont House Overwhelmingly Advances Broadband Bill Funding Community Models

Stock image of fiber-optic cables.
A broadband bill advanced by the House Tuesday would promote internet services that provide fiber optic lines to the home, such as these pictured here.

The Vermont House on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a bill designed to spread broadband internet throughout rural parts of the state.

The legislation aims to bring broadband to the 17,000 Vermonters who don’t have basic internet access, outside of dial-up. Some 50,000 other Vermonters have internet that does not meet the federal definition of broadband.

The bill offers a package of state-backed loans and grants to help internet providers build in under-served areas.

The Vermont Economic Development Authority would be authorized to loan $10.8 million, with $1.8 million available to each broadband company. Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, a chief sponsor of the legislation, said big telecom companies and the federal government have neglected rural areas.

"We know that national cable and wireless providers are not coming to fix this problem for the people of Readsboro, Rochester, Newbury, or the Northeast Kingdom." - Dover Rep. Laura Sibilia

“We know that national cable and wireless providers are not coming to fix this problem for the people of Readsboro, Rochester, Newbury, or the Northeast Kingdom,” she said. “And we know Vermont currently does not have $600 million in state dollars to build a fiber network.”

The bill advanced by a huge margin, with just two votes against it.

Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, chairs the House Energy and Technology Committee, which drafted the bill. In a briefing with reporters, Briglin noted that previous administrations repeatedly missed deadlines to reach all of Vermont with internet and cell service. So Briglin said this year’s bill simply tries to build on community-based internet projects, like ECFiber, that have a proven record of success.

“In looking at models that worked around the state, what our committee did was essentially put together a bill that would empower communities,” he said. “It would put the ability of the state to better  help communities to solve their broadband issue both in the form of funding, in the form of planning, and essentially in the form of advice.”

Briglin said the state-backed, low-interest loans – which require that no interest or principal be paid in the first two years – should help local companies clear a critical first financial hurdle.

“What they are doing is stringing fiber, they are trying to sign up subscribers and there is very little revenue coming into those entities,” he said. “That’s very difficult financing to find from a bank or from the capital markets.”

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group released a statement in support of the legislation.

"VPIRG believes jumpstarting community-owned broadband efforts is the key to addressing Vermont’s connectivity issues and we’re hopeful that the reforms contained in H.513 will do that," said Zach Tomanelli, VPIRG's director of communications and technology. "Because they don’t need to satisfy corporate shareholders, community-owned networks are better able to provide universal service -- reaching the houses that aren’t profitable.”

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