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Guilford Selectboard Chair Sheila Morse.

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Connectivity: How does it happen, and who pays?

Local officials meet with Welch to discuss ways that Feds can help deliver universal broadband to Vermont

BRATTLEBORO—Gretchen Havreluk, Wilmington’s Economic & Community Development Consultant, was late to a June 28 meeting on broadband internet access with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in Brattleboro.

Why? Havreluk said she was in her office at her home in Jacksonville, trying to submit a grant application for Wilmington to the Vermont Agency of Transportation. She said she could not download the information because her internet connection was too slow.

That little vignette illustrated the frustration that many Vermonters still experience when it comes to getting a reliable and relatively fast internet or cellular connection.

Economic development representatives from Dover, Guilford, Brattleboro, and Shaftsbury, along with local lawmakers and Vermont Public Service Commissioner June Tierney, met with Welch at the Brattleboro Community Credit Corp.’s offices on Cotton Mill Hill.

As was the case in the 1930s, when it took federal intervention to bring electricity to rural America, Welch believes a similar effort is needed to extend and improve service to under-served places such as southern Vermont.

“There’s no economic case to be made for last mile broadband, but there’s a social case,” said Welch. “The challenges we have in Vermont outside of Burlington are not unique.”

With rural states struggling with the rising costs of health care, education, and infrastructure upkeep, Welch said the lack of reliable and affordable telecommunications services is another impediment to economic growth.

“We need both better regulatory policy and increased funding to wire rural America,” he said, adding that it’s not enough just to deliver the minimum service, currently defined by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) as 25 megabits per second downloads and 3 megabits per second up loads, but to build networks that can grow as technology changes “so we’re not lagging behind five or 10 years.”

Fighting for speed, access

State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, worked extensively on telecommunication policy as part of the House Energy & Technology Committee this session. She was one of the lawmakers behind H.513, a bill signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on June 20 to commit the state to investing more resources into expanding broadband connectivity in Vermont.

H.513 provides communities with access to start-up money from the Vermont Economic Development Agency to create expanded broadband services, and raises the Universal Service Fund fee from 2 percent to 2.4 percent to help fund a new state program called the Connectivity Initiative.

It also sets aside about $1 million for a feasibility study to help create inter-muncipal Communications Union Districts, similar to the 24 small towns in Orange and Windsor counties that banded together to form the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District (ECFiber).

Sibilia said she believes the big telecommunications companies have little interest in serving rural areas, let alone delivering service that is on par with more populated areas.

“Providers are going to continue to upgrade their profitable networks,” she said, and state and federal policies must “ensure our communities have some ability to protect themselves in the future” against eliminating current technologies, such as land-line telephones, and not having an adequate replacement.

“For a lot of my constituents, that’s all they have,” she said. “You have to make sure they can literally call for help.”

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, said she was heartened to see the change in attitude from regulators and policymakers — from treating broadband as something that would be nice to have, to realizing that “we cannot survive in rural Vermont without it. It’s the only way we can keep these small towns viable.”

The comparison between the battle to bring electrification to rural states in the 1930s, and the current battle to bring broadband to many of those same locales in this century was not lost on Welch, or any of the people at the meeting.

Havreluk said that while a high-speed internet line goes through Wilmington along Routes 9 and 100, “it is cost-prohibitive for some businesses to connect” if they have access, and high speed service does not extend far from the highway corridors.

This means home offices and “cottage industries” that are located away from the main line are still out of luck and stuck with slow and spotty connections, she said.

Guilford Selectboard Chair Sheila Morse said that her town has been trying to expand broadband access for three years, because the town believes “if we have broadband, the other things we need — roads, bridges, child care, etc. — will follow, because we will attract people. Our tax base will increase and our [property] taxes will go down.”

State Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, pointed out to Welch that Guilford has 80 miles of dirt roads, and said that “bridging this urban/rural divide and bringing our communities up to 21st century speeds” is critically important.

“But the thing we struggle with in our smaller towns is the capacity to do it,” she added. “Our capacity in our little towns is pretty shallow.”

Welch said increased broadband access “is one of the few issues where there is common ground” between Vermont and the rural “red states” that voted for Donald Trump, but “leadership on this issue will ultimately have to come from the community level.”

Tierney agreed, saying that “the ECFiber model works. It can be scaled to the community that needs to use it. In my opinion, it’s actually preferable to having a Comcast or a Verizon [as a provider].”

Accountability matters

Community accountability is the reason why a local provider is preferable, Tierney said. She used as an illustration a recent speed test that the Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS) performed to check the accuracy of cellular coverage maps.

Last year, the FCC offered $4.5 billion in its Mobility Fund reverse auction to encourage the expansion of high-speed mobile broadband in rural area, and asked carriers to submit maps showing where they offered 4G LTE service with download speeds of at least 5 megabits a second.

The FCC claimed that most of Vermont already has high-speed mobile broadband, and thus didn’t qualify for the program. But the DPS begged to differ, and two of its investigators, Clay Purvis and Corey Chase, traveled thousands of miles around Vermont checking signal strength and download and upload speeds by cellular carriers.

What Purvis and Chase found was that the carriers’ coverage maps were wildly inaccurate, and that, in some places that the FCC claimed had access to high-speed service, there was no service at all.

“The state of understanding at the FCC is abysmal,” said Tierney, adding that only when “the genuine necessity argument is acknowledged, understood, and felt” by policymakers will change occur.

Tierney said the whole process of making broadband as universal as electricity is “messy,” but it must be done, and be done in a way that doesn’t leave vulnerable populations behind.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #517 (Wednesday, July 3, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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