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Reporter debrief: How Vermont is spending $350 million in COVID relief to expand broadband

The side of a yellow truck with a sticker that reads high-speed internet
Elodie Reed
/
VPR File
About 51,000 homes in Vermont still don't have broadband access. So how will federal dollars be spent on this infrastructure?

The infrastructure bill Congress passed earlier in November — and that President Biden signed into law this week — has about $100 million to help Vermont build out its broadband network. That’s on top of another huge pot of money from the earlier federal COVID relief aid also directed toward broadband.

With about 51,000 homes in Vermont without any broadband at all, and thousands more with weak service that needs to be upgraded, how is this money being spent?

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman to discuss what the broadband funding means for Vermont's long-promised goal of bringing high-speed internet to every corner of the state. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: First of all, where is all of this money going? What does the state think it will cost to improve broadband? And how is all the federal money going to help?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Right, so the state put out a 10-year telecommunications plan last year, and that report said it would probably cost between $300 million and $500 million to connect every Vermont home and business.

Vermont has been working on this for a long time. We got about $47 million in the Obama stimulus package. And in some parts of the state, service has improved, but the most remote and rural parts of Vermont still don't have service.

It's never made sense for telecom companies to invest so much of their money in laying out high speed fiber there, because there are so few houses. So the Legislature decided to use $250 million from the federal COVID relief package in the last session. And then Congress passed its infrastructure package, and there's another $100 million in that for Vermont.

So, that's a lot of money! That's $350 million that's come into Vermont, just in the last year or so, you know, for a job that should cost $400 million to $500 million. So, state leaders think this is really a once-in-a-lifetime chance to finally improve high-speed internet service here.

And of course, we've been hearing a lot about communications union districts during all of this — remind us of what these CUDs really are?

This goes back to a group in central Vermont that got together in 2007 or so. And they were frustrated by all this. So they kind of formed their own group, they called it ECFiber. And there were about 20 towns in that. And they just started doing this on their own, you know, they organized, they raised some money. And they were really successful in bringing broadband to a lot of homes in that region.

The Legislature saw this, and they passed a law in 2019 to put up some money and make it easier for other districts to form. And the idea is that when a bunch of towns can get together, they can organize and develop plans to get the fiber strung up. And then they negotiate a deal with an internet provider to bring this service in.

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And remember, all of this work started before COVID, and before all this pandemic money came into Vermont. And so that's what's fascinating, is Vermont was really primed to finally move ahead and get this broadband started. We didn't know how we'd pay for it, but the districts were in place. And then all this federal money showed up.

So, there are nine districts now. There are about 200 towns or so that are working to bring broadband into their communities. And all this work is being done, at least at the beginning stages, by volunteers.

Gov. Scott put Christine Hallquist in charge of the VT Community Broadband Board, that’s the group that's working with the CUDs to help them with technical issues and funding. This is what Hallquist said about the community districts:

“Without grant funding, of course, we would never be able to address this issue. So, the whole overall idea is, we're building this network, at the least possible cost by using not-for-profit entities, and then of course, using the grant funds to drive down the cost of entry.”

So that what's going to happen — this federal money will pay for the planning and the infrastructure. And since the internet companies don't have to pay for the infrastructure, you know, it should be more affordable for everyone.

Some of these CUDs are a little farther along than others. There's a group in the Northeast Kingdom, and another one in central Vermont, they’re laying lines out right now for a couple of pilot programs.

And a few weeks ago, four groups in the state received almost $10 million to begin detailed planning for their member towns. That includes going pole to pole and deciding what technology is needed to connect the homes.

Well, Howard, as you said before, this is an effort that's been going on literally for decades. So, what's the timeline for all of this now?

Well, a lot of the money right now is going into planning. Hallquist told me she expects some serious work to get underway in the spring. She thinks that it's going to be four, five, maybe six years to complete this work.

More from VPR: Did Your Zoom Video Freeze Again? COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Internet Inadequacies

We’ve talked a lot about the money. But there's also the issue of workforce shortages, which we've been hearing a lot about. They're happening all through the economy — in restaurants, manufacturing, health care, schools — does Vermont really have enough people to get this work done, beyond the money problem?

Yeah, you know, this really is an issue, Mitch. The state thinks it needs about 200 additional fiber technicians to hang all these lines. These are trained positions, it takes years to train for this, so it really could be an issue.

There are also supply chain shortages with all of this. You know, every state in the country is going to be working on this, so it's been a challenge to get some of this fiber and the technology.

Supposedly the state is trying to start purchasing some of this for next year, but I think that it's going to be a challenge in both workforce and supplies, getting this all together.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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