Evan Carlson: Vermonters need to take control over achieving universal broadband

Updated: May 7

VT Digger; Online Article: Link

What if reliable, high-speed internet could be built to every address in Vermont, knowing the infrastructure would serve our rural communities for many decades to come. Would you trust your neighbors to carry out this mission, or would you place your faith in a telecommunications executive hundreds of miles away?

I know who I’d choose: the people I live amongst, the ones I see at the transfer stations, the general stores and on Town Meeting Day. These are the people I know will make the best decisions for my community because they are part of my community.

During the past year, tens of thousands of people across Vermont have experienced the widespread failure of our communications infrastructure as they tried to stay connected through the pandemic. Now, a decade after the last major economic crisis, we are getting another rare opportunity to invest in our state’s future and could finally deliver universal broadband, an issue that has plagued governors, legislators and other statewide office holders for years.

Over the preceding decade or so, hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars have been awarded in good faith to private and investor-owned telecommunications companies. Why hasn’t this made a bigger impact in rural areas?

Federal guidelines for those grants and loans do not require 100% coverage. In addition, telecom companies get to choose which locations to include in their grant/loan applications so tens of thousands of homes and businesses still struggle with inadequate or nonexistent service.

Another problem with the current system is that internet providers regularly misrepresent available service in reports to the Federal Communications Commission. For example, my home is reported to have access to 10/1mbps service yet I can only get 764kps.

Vermont’s goal from early in the 21st century has been simple: Get everyone access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet. Now Vermont has chosen a new pathway to building universal broadband infrastructure. With 186 towns, over two-thirds of the towns in the state, joining communications union districts, it’s apparent that most communities have lost all faith in large providers and are ready to take on this critical task.

Rural telecommunications is a complex business, not dissimilar to rural electrification. To oversimplify the challenge, stringing fiber on poles is expensive, between $30,000 and $45,000 a mile. A business needs enough customers per mile to pay that investment back, plus have sufficient funds to operate and maintain the infrastructure.

In many rural areas, there are only two or three homes per mile, which means that even if 100% of those customers subscribe to broadband service at $60/month, it could take 20-plus years to recoup just the initial investment, let alone pay for maintenance.

This is why existing internet providers haven’t gotten the work done, even with large handouts.

Gov. Scott and the Legislature have proposed spending between $150 million and $250 million to achieve universal service in the state (for context, NEK Broadband estimates it will cost $120 million to connect every address in the three counties). Both have proposed granting the funds exclusively to the CUDs, the community-led municipalities tasked with developing broadband infrastructure in the state’s most rural regions.

I applaud the state’s leadership in this approach, even amid pressure from existing providers who are asserting their commitment to serve all of Vermont or that their service is already getting the job done.

Some might say the groups of volunteers behind the CUDs don’t have the background or experience to take on such complicated work. But all you have to do is look at the representatives of these CUD boards to see the depth of experience at the table: executives from electric utilities, technology companies and health care organizations; grant writers and educators; as well as state legislators. These boards are packed with capable people ready to volunteer their time and expertise.

CUDs will never be focused on providing profit to shareholders. We will be fiscally responsible because we know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build infrastructure to support the next generations of Vermonters.

We know the impact of this infrastructure goes beyond entertainment. If the previous year has taught us anything about broadband internet access, it’s that access is a matter of equity for education, small businesses and healthcare.

NEK Broadband’s primary goal is to connect every 911 address in the district with reliable, affordable high-speed internet. Whenever possible, we will hire local workers to ensure the funding we receive circulates in our communities.

Last, but not least, is ensuring we own the infrastructure that we fund. This is especially important as we look to the future, with the awareness that the fiber that we hang on poles now holds its value and that we should have a say as a community in how it is utilized and by whom.

Communications union districts will build the fiber infrastructure and, in most cases, contract an internet service provider to handle service delivery, technical and customer support, marketing and network operations.

Our fiber network provides the opportunity to support other important communication needs, including expansion of the public safety network and electrical grid modernization that provides great resiliency, smart meters, local battery storage, faster outage reporting and restoration. Most of these things are not possible on networks owned by larger telecommunications companies.

We are being presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally deliver on the longstanding (and as yet unfulfilled) promise of universal broadband at every address in Vermont. Let’s take full advantage of this opportunity and do what’s best for our people and our economy by supporting the decision to fund CUDs, retaining local control over the development and ownership of this infrastructure. We owe it to our neighbors to do this right.