Reporter Debrief: Expanding Vt. Broadband Could Involve Elon Musk, Lawmakers and Gov. Scott
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the glaring inequities in broadband internet service in Vermont. Reliable and affordable internet is essential for virtual schooling, work and accessing health care. Now, three different ideas — from three widely different entities — are being considered as ways to boost high-speed internet access.
Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Legislature have competing ideas about how to bring broadband to everyone who needs it. At the same time, new and potentially game changing satellite technology being pioneered by businessman Elon Musk could bring high-speed service to even the most isolated pockets of the state.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with VPR senior reporter John Dillion, who has been following these broadband-related efforts. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So how are these developments related?
John Dillon: Well, it's all about connectivity. The pandemic is still with us. Everyone is still working at home. And the latest numbers are that Vermont still has 61,000 locations that lack access to the federal definition of basic broadband. That's down from about 70,000 at the start of the pandemic, because the state rolled out a bunch of emergency programs last spring and summer, but still, a lot of people can't get online with anywhere near the speed they need.
So, the governor has a $20 million spending plan to address this. It's getting somewhat mixed reviews in the Legislature since they have their own ideas. But meanwhile, we've got Elon Musk, who keeps launching satellites, and that could absolutely change things, at least in the shorter term in Vermont and the rest of rural America.
OK, and this is Elon Musk, like the Tesla guy?
Yeah — he also happens to be the world's richest person. He's got a rocket company, and so far he's launched 1,000 small low-Earth satellites, orbiting satellites, that can get you internet if you're in the middle of nowhere, like on a dirt road in the Northeast Kingdom.
I talked to Tom Evslin about this, and he lives in Stowe and is kind of one of Vermont's tech pioneers. He worked for Microsoft. He's also been the state's chief technology officer. And he's really the ultimate early adopter and was really eager to try Starlink, this new satellite service.
OK, and how did it work for him?
Really well. We actually talked on Zoom over Starlink. Tom says it was really easy to set up. In fact, you just take the thing out of the box and the dish, which you need to get the satellite signal, aligns itself. So, it gets a signal and then just points itself to the right spot. The speeds are much better than DSL, but they're slower than the highest of your fiber-optic services.
I interviewed a couple of people around the state who use Starlink. A select board member of Monkton who got it said it changed his life because he no longer has to drive and park outside of a Wi-Fi hotspot for business meetings. This service is being rolled out in rural Vermont and people seem to like it so far.
Yeah. And so, Tom Evslin, the early adopter, what's his takeaway about the potential for Vermont?
Well, he says we should define the problem maybe a little differently than we are. He says it gets back to the need for immediate connectivity. So, he really sees Starlink service as a bridge to longer-term solutions that the state is working on, but that could take at least a year or more to build out, like fiber optic.
Evslin said the state should take some of that $20 million the governor wants to spend and help people who can't afford to pay for Starlink right now. Here he is:
“As a state, we should start thinking about affordability and trying to make sure that this year, not two years from now, three years from now, but that this year, everybody gets access.” - Tom Evslin, Starlink user
And Henry, to back up, Vermont and so many other rural places are in this situation because internet is not defined as an essential service that providers have to deliver. It was deregulated by Congress back in 1996 and that left it up to the private sector and larger companies like Comcast and Consolidated to go where the profits are, and that's where people or potential customers live.
For them, it's all about customers per mile. And if it's not profitable to serve you because you're at the end of a dirt road, you'll wait for a very long time. And Evslin points out that this doesn't apply to Elon Musk with his satellites.
“So, every other provider cares about density. Well, Starlink doesn't care at all about density because it isn't any more expensive to reach somebody out in the middle of nowhere, as long as their dish can see you, than somewhere in a populated area.” - Tom Evslin, Starlink user
So, it's not only game changing from a technology perspective potentially, but also the economic and business model is quite different.
This is happening just as the governor is making his spending proposal and the Legislature has its own plan to expand broadband. So, tell us a little bit more about those two plans. Are they competing?
Yeah, in a sense. As mentioned, the governor wants to spend $20 million now on broadband, and he'd do this by helping pay for line extensions — sort of what they did this summer to underserved or unserved areas — and he'd use $16 million in grants and loans, probably primarily aimed at helping communication union districts. These are the local providers that are springing up all over the state that have plans to deliver fiber-optic service to the home.
The Legislature, meanwhile, has a more ambitious or far-reaching plan. It's now being crafted by the House Energy and Technology Committee, and it would set up an entire new entity in state government called the Vermont Community Broadband Authority. It's basically a reshuffling of how the state promotes and pays for broadband, and it's really aimed at making one department responsible and then getting out $36 million in loans to these communication union districts.
I talked to the committee chair, Rep. Tim Briglin, about the bill. He's a Democrat from Thetford. He says big government restructuring is needed because what we've done so far hasn't delivered.
“I would have hoped that 10 years ago we would have done this well and we didn't, which is why we're where we are right now. My committee is taking a long view on how to get this done.” - Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford
And what's Rep. Briglin’s reaction to the idea of helping people pay for or subsidize Starlink service — that Elon Musk satellite service — to get folks online quicker?
I'd say Rep. Briglin is a little skeptical, but not averse to looking at it. He says the state has bet wrongly on supposedly game changing internet technology before.
“Starlink is the latest one to come up, and certainly, you know, supported by the wealthiest man in the world.. and they've got a shot at being successful, but we don't know.” - Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford
So Briglin says these CUD’s — these Communications Union Districts — are really the best solution for Vermont. He points out that when the Legislature did a big broadband bill two years ago, that really directed a lot of resources at these fledgling CUDs. There were only two in the state and now there are nine.
But what would be the timeline on that? How long would it take to actually get internet to residents?
It still could be a couple of years before the last mile is reached, and Starlink could reach people now. The problem is the cost — $500 upfront and then a $100-a-month fee. And I think it remains to be seen if the Legislature will want to help people pay for that, as Tom Evslin suggests.
Clarification 10:40 a.m. 3/19/21: An earlier version of this story reported that 47,000 addresses were not reached by internet service that meets the federal definition of broadband. The state Department of Public Service now says that number did not include an additional 14,000 addresses that will be served through a nationwide program funded by the Federal Communications Commission.
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