Gov. Phil Scott signs a bill

Gov. Phil Scott, at a Johnson Zoom meeting, signs a bill into law that will help towns form districts to pursue better internet service.

Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill Tuesday evening aimed at streamlining efforts around the state to form local broadband networks.

The signature came during the last of the widely praised community meetings that Johnson’s emergency management team has held via Zoom every week since the pandemic started.

It was a fitting setting — Johnson has been bullish on broadband for a while now, and is one of seven Lamoille County towns hoping to form one of these local networks, known as communications union districts.

“The bill (H.958) really is a step in the right direction,” Scott said. “This will help a number of communities.”

Communications union districts have gained popularity in the last year, with residents in several Vermont towns voting on Town Meeting Day to take steps to form their own. But the pandemic put a halt to any other towns who wanted to follow suit, because state law regarding the districts required special town meetings to vote them forward.

H.958 allows municipal legislative bodies, such as select boards and city councils, to vote on them, rather than holding a special town meeting in a pandemic. The law remains in effect as long as the COVID-19 declared state of emergency does.

Scott said the state will ante up money to improve broadband in Vermont “to put a Band-Aid on the problem, but this needs significant dollars.” Already, lawmakers are scaling back the $100 million proposed for broadband improvement that comes from the $1.2 billion in pandemic-related federal Cares Act funds allocated to Vermont.

Scott said the federal government ought to approach broadband with the same level of commitment that the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 did, in bringing electricity to rural America.

Said Scott, “This something the federal government should really take on.”

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