As the 2021 Vermont legislative session ended last week, both Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature achieved their key goal by approving $150 million toward the expansion of broadband across the state.
Federal funds, part of the American Rescue Plan Act, will be primarily directed toward Vermont’s Communications Union Districts and the small internet service providers with which these districts often partner. The first $100 million will be spent in the fiscal year beginning July 1, while the rest is earmarked for the future.
Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, who sits on the Energy and Technology Committee and is a longtime advocate for broadband expansion in Vermont, is particularly pleased with where H.360 ended up after reconciliation of two differing versions of the bill in the House and Senate.
“It’s been described as a paradigm shift,” Rogers said. “The amount of money is just on a scale that we’ve never seen before. We have COVID to thank, really, and those of us like myself, who have been community organizing on this since before anyone was really thinking about broadband being the future.”
Expanding broadband access was a bipartisan effort and enjoyed widespread support. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, a member on the Energy and Technology Committee as well, was also excited about the bill.
“One hundred and fifty million to advance broadband build-out for all Vermonters is a great step in the right direction. It provides much-needed resources to Communications Union Districts, like Lamoille FiberNet, to move forward on their plans for our communities,” she said. “And, while the initial legislation did not provide for the ability of small, local, private providers to qualify for funds to continue their expansions, I am pleased the final version does include such funds.”
Ensuring equitable access
According to Rogers, the bill doesn’t just earmark $150 million to be immediately directed toward broadband expansion; it also contains legislative language that, though non-binding, leaves the door open for further funding so the Legislature can easily move toward its ultimate goal of providing every address in Vermont with high-quality broadband access.
Rogers also believes that the emphasis on encouraging broadband access through the communication union districts — which were originally created by the state in 2015 but have greatly expanded since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic made internet access an even more essential utility — is pivotal in ensuring the equitable development of broadband access.
“We have a history of private providers promising to build out an area and not following through,” Rogers said. “We’ve gotten to this point where we have a lot of the main roads and more populated areas built through with broadband. Sometimes that can actually work in the opposite direction of getting us toward ultimately having universal service. Because if you build down all the more populated main roads, then you kind of doughnut-hole the less populated backroads.”
The bill requires companies that receive funding to provide service to every unserved or underserved location in an area, according to Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, whose district also serves Morristown and Elmore.
Patt, who also serves on the Energy and Technology Committee, said, “What is critical is the involvement of the public, through their communication union districts, in assuring that there is a plan to get service to everyone, not just the more populated or more profitable areas. This ‘cherry-picking’ of territory has actually made it harder to get service to everyone, particularly in rural areas. It won’t happen overnight, but H.360 is a very big step forward.”
Because the communication union districts are municipal, subject to open records laws, overseen by members appointed by the selectboards within the district and have a mandate to work strategically toward universal service in a way private providers do not, Rogers sees them as the best way to ensure equitable broadband internet access.
Though concerns were raised that the bill doesn’t ensure access for low-income households or money to help people afford an internet connection, Rogers said this money is just the first step in an ongoing effort.
This money will pay to install fiber optic cable, which should ensure this money will build long-lasting infrastructure. Language in the bill also specifically guarantees a certain internet connection speed.
Rogers said this paradigm shift recognizes that what the state does now and how it builds out broadband guarantees that the Vermonters who are going to be the last to get service do, in fact, get service.
The process begins
Though the prospect of supercharged funding for Communications Union Districts found almost unanimous support, some, like Scheuermann, wanted to see quicker fixes to bridge the gap that didn’t materialize.
“The work of the districts is the primary focus of this legislation, and I am optimistic they will be able to do the job quickly of connecting Vermonters, especially in the rural areas,” she said. “I do want to temper expectations that it will happen at the speed that many Vermonters want and need it. That is why I was hopeful to simultaneously see a short-term proposal to get people hooked up immediately to whatever provider was available, even if it wasn’t fiber.”
Jane Campbell of Morristown, the elected chair of Lamoille Fibernet, the district that serves Lamoille County, said that while there were talks about creating the district prior to COVID-19, it was the pandemic that demanded its creation.
According to Campbell, the money appropriated by the Legislature will be doled out in the form of grants. Lamoille Fibernet has already begun the application process, though it’s uncertain at this point how much money it will see.
The five-year plan is to get broadband expansion going with this money and then use the developed assets to take out loans and eventually enter the bond market, like any other municipal entity, and create a sustainable expansion process.
There are many underserved pockets of Lamoille County in every town and Campbell isn’t certain exactly which areas will be targeted first, but did note that parts of Cambridge and Waterville seem to be the most underserved.
“I can’t tell you how many people are emailing us saying, ‘Hey, I need this. I need broadband. How soon can I get it?’ ” she said. “We’re going as fast as we can. This money is certainly going to help but it is a multi-million, multi-year effort. So we’ll all need to have patience, but it’s just exciting that the funding is here, and we can really get going.”
This story has been updated since originally reported. It had indicated that two of the most underserved areas in Lamoille County were Cambridge and Waterbury. It should have said Cambridge and Waterville.