Vermont’s fledgling telecommunications districts want to see changes in federal funding — and to the federal definition of broadband — to better meet the state’s goal of universal high-speed connections within four years.
“It’s wonderful to think about the notion that we should be running like an electric utility,” Ann Manwaring, a representative of Deerfield Valley Communications Union District, told Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., during a Zoom call Wednesday.
“But until there’s some federal legislative action that permits that to happen … we have to function much more like a profit-making business without any profits below the line,” Manwaring said.
She and leaders from the state’s eight other communications union districts met virtually with the Democratic congressman to summarize their work so far and what they believe is needed to succeed.
The local governance bodies, enabled by a 2015 law, are meant to make broadband internet more widely available in underserved regions without financial risk to taxpayers. Only two districts existed before this year’s Town Meeting Day, and only one of them — ECFiber, in east-central Vermont — offers services right now.
With the Covid-19 pandemic heightening the need for internet access across Vermont, the state Department of Public Services in June released an emergency plan that called for universal access to broadband by 2024. Legislators’ goal in recent years has been to achieve 100 megabits per second speeds download and upload speeds by 2024, too.
But to achieve the 2024 goals, the regional districts would need to build 25% of their networks next year, costing around $75 million, ECFiber board chair F.X. Flinn said Wednesday.
“I think the only way that can happen is if there’s a federal infrastructure bill that has money for broadband, where money can be granted directly to the CUDs, and the only barrier that should exist is whether or not they are existing municipalities,” Flinn said. “There shouldn’t be any other test.”
Several of the CUD leaders expressed frustration with federal funding mechanisms, which they believe favor well-established, commercial internet providers. They echoed concerns raised earlier this year about the state’s plan to boost broadband access through a reverse auction.
Districts can’t use taxpayer money from their member municipalities, so they have to rely on customers to survive. But getting customers requires services, and substantial startup funds are needed to get those operational.
State officials call ECFiber a model for new districts to follow, but it took the district three years to get its first customer, Flinn said. Another five years passed before the district could access municipal bonds, which are repaid through customer revenue.
That jump has to happen in 18 months for the newer districts to meet state goals, he said.
District leaders said funding to hire professional staff is particularly important.
“CUDs, as we know, are volunteers with no taxing authority trying to solve what in Vermont is a $400 million problem,” said Tim Scoggins, board chair for the Southern Vermont Communications Union District. “So professional help would be at the top of my ask.”
Another ask: changing the federal definition of broadband.
The Federal Communications Commission categorizes broadband, or high-speed internet, as a connection with a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 megabits per second.
“What it is currently is this almost useless standard of 25/3, which does not satisfy the needs of even one person,” Michael Rooney, chair of the Lamoille FiberNet Communications Union District.
Rooney said the standard should be 100 megabits symmetrical, for uploads and downloads. That shift would spur more action, he believes.
“That has tentacles that reach out all over the place,” Rooney said.
Jeremy Hansen, chair of the CVFiber district in central Vermont, said an upgraded definition of broadband will become more important and more people turn to bandwidth-heavy activities, like streaming video.
“I think that’s the future proof move right now,” he said of a definition change.
For his part, Welch said he was pleased with the uptick in districts this year.
“The fact that there are now all these new districts in Vermont is an extremely promising development,” he said.
During a U.S. House hearing Thursday, Welch used his time to tell the FCC’s five commissioners about the state’s districts as a way struggling rural areas can access broadband.