Reporter Debrief: With Latest Infusion From COVID Relief Bills, Is Broadband For All On Its Way?
The COVID-19 pandemic made the state's broadband inequities glaringly clear. Despite a big push by the state last year, thousands of people, especially those in Vermont's most rural areas, could not get online to go to school, work or access health care. The recently passed American Rescue Plan Act could change that.
The latest number shows some 61,000 addresses still lack access to the federal definition of broadband. The new federal legislation directs billions of dollars to states to help build out infrastructure projects, including broadband internet service.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with senior reporter John Dillon about the state of play with broadband bills in the Statehouse and the new influx of federal money.
Henry Epp: So, Vermont gets $2.7 billion under the rescue plan. Do we know how much goes to broadband?
Not yet, and so not precisely, but it will be a huge game changer. Remember, a lot of that federal money is going directly to people in the form of stimulus payments and funds to help folks with children, but there's still a lot for broadband.
Administration Secretary Suzanne Young said on Tuesday that the state will get more than $100 million for infrastructure, including broadband and water and sewer projects. And she says the money could come all at once or in separate pieces, depending on the U.S. Treasury and how they dole it out.
OK, that's a huge investment. Do we have any idea yet on what the state plans to do with it?
Not yet, but lawmakers are gearing up for this pending tsunami of federal money.
And just to back up, back in January before the American Rescue [Plan Act] funds were even on the horizon, Gov. Scott proposed $20 million to boost broadband. The House Energy and Technology Committee, which has been working on this issue for a couple of years, increased that by 50%. So, they had a $30 million plan, and their bill would actually set up an entire new piece of state government called the Community Broadband Authority to use grants and loans to help new local organizations called Communication Union Districts to deliver service.
But with the federal money earlier this week, Committee Chair Tim Briglin says they'll amend a bill to include some of these federal dollars. He's now looking at $200 million-plus for broadband in the state bill. He says, "Yeah, that's huge." But it could actually cost $1 billion to bring superfast internet all over Vermont. Here he is.
“We could easily spend multiples of that $200 million to solve this problem. And that $200 million is not a crazy amount to dedicate to kind of a once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure need in helping us, you know, kind of hop into the 21st century here.” - House Energy and Technology Committee Chair Tim Briglin
So that's where the bill is now. It could be on the House floor as early as next week.
OK, but are internet providers waiting around for that money before they get started on new broadband projects?
No, even before that money gets out there, you've got existing internet providers going gangbusters with their own build out plans.
Consolidated Communications, which is the legacy landline company here, as well as a broadband provider, they're building fiber-to-the-home in Montpelier and Brattleboro. They've got a big private equity firm behind them and they're going to head-to-head with cable companies like Comcast to compete with customers.
And one sort of real-world impact: All this work has put a big strain on companies that string the fiber all over the state and actually all over the region. I talked with Susan Kay, who’s CEO of Eustis Cable Enterprises in Brookfield, and she says she's desperate to hire crews to do the work, and she's actually declined to bid on projects because they have so much work.
“It is absolutely like nothing I've seen in the 20 years before now. So, like I said, our biggest hurdle is the labor force and, you know, right now our size is determined by if we can find competent help or train.” - Susan Kay, CEO of Eustis Cable Enterprises
So, it's a land rush going on now and it's only going to get busier out there. Consolidated alone says it has plans to invest nearly $140 million in Vermont over five years, and that's before they get another pot of money from the Federal Communications Commission. And that money, it was from a reverse auction that the FCC ran, has to be used specifically for underserved areas.
OK, but, John, you talked in the beginning about how the House committee wants to use public dollars also to help Communication Union Districts. And as we've reported, the districts are municipal nonprofit organizations. So how do the big plans of companies like Consolidated affect those local efforts?
Well, it's a big concern right now with these Communication Union Districts. ECFiber in the Upper Valley is the most well-established; it's been around for a decade. The others are in kind of a startup phase. They've got volunteer boards and limited legal and technical expertise, and there's some real concern that Consolidated or the other for-profits will kind of get out ahead of them in a number of ways.
For example, I talked to Jonathan Baker. He's a board member of NEK Community Broadband that wants to improve internet access in the Kingdom. And he points out that the legislation allows these CUDs to get access to state-owned fiber optic lines. The state actually owns some of the backbone service. And Baker says that's great, but he's worried if there'll be enough oversight and legal expertise to make sure they stay viable in the long run, especially in the face of competition from the established providers. Here he is.
“And, you know, finally, just making sure that the price structure is going to remain in place for the foreseeable future. That there’s not going to be price increases, speed throttling or data caps on broadband service that goes across the state networks. We can't enforce any of that in a reliable way without significant legal support going out to the CUDs.” - Jonathan Baker, a board member of NEK Community Broadband
OK, so, John, with all this money and all these projects and community startups, when can people all over the state actually expect to get high-speed internet?
You know, it's still not going to be overnight, Henry. But one state official I talked to says there's really no excuse for everyone not to have broadband by 2024 at the latest.
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