Aiming to boost internet service throughout the state, the Vermont House voted Tuesday to provide $150 million and a new government body to pursue better broadband.
The money in H.360 could be harnessed by Vermont’s communications union districts — community owned fiber-optic networks that serve multiple towns — to expand broadband access to areas with lousy or nonexistent service.
The bill was approved 145-1 Tuesday afternoon. The money would come from the federal American Rescue Plan, the latest round of Covid-19 aid from Washington.
The broadband bill is expected to pass on a second vote on Wednesday before heading to the Senate.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the frailties of weak broadband coverage, with many people working from home and students struggling to attend school remotely. Expanding internet service became a top priority for lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott, as officials estimate that 60,000 addresses in the state lack an adequate internet connection.
The legislation prioritized communication union districts over private internet service providers, because past efforts in that direction have failed.
Speaking on the virtual House floor, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said state and federal efforts to steer funding and other resources to private internet providers have fallen short of the goal of bringing broadband to all areas of Vermont.
“Our efforts to connect have been repeatedly frustrated and uncoordinated. The pandemic has driven home just how much that failure to connect is costing Vermonters who need broadband for health care, for education, to connect to jobs and loved ones, and to be able to call for help,” Sibilia said.
“We need a paradigm shift in order to build broadband to the last mile in Vermont. This bill intends to provide coordination, to require accountability, to focus on universal service, not just connectivity to the most profitable customers,” Sibilia said.
So far, 200 of Vermont’s 246 municipalities in the state have become part of nine communications union districts, Sibilia said.
Under the legislation, the districts could apply for grants and loans to help them design and build fiber-optic networks.
While private internet companies couldn’t receive direct funding, lawmakers are still encouraging the communication union districts to work with those companies to expand broadband service. Through public-private partnerships, the districts and internet providers can team up to build out and operate fiber networks.
The House broadband bill was buoyed by the federal Covid relief package signed by President Joe Biden this month. Before that legislation was enacted, the broadband legislation included only $32 million in state funding. Once the American Rescue Plan was approved, legislators stripped out the state dollars, and added $150 million from the federal relief bill.
The finances for internet expansion would be handled by the new Vermont Community Broadband Authority, which the legislation would establish. The new authority’s job would be to coordinate, facilitate and accelerate broadband buildout throughout the state.
Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee, compared the bill to the rural electrification program advanced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s.
He noted that it wasn’t until 1963 that the last Vermont towns got electricity for the first time.
“We can do better than that with broadband connectivity in Vermont, but it will take accountability, it will take coordination and it will require focus on universal service, not just connectivity to the most profitable customers,” Briglin said on the virtual House floor.
“This can be our rural electrification projects for broadband; this can be a historic step forward for our state,” he said.
Rep. Kristi Morris, D-Springfield, cast the only vote against the broadband bill on Tuesday. He said he supports expanded internet access, but opposes preventing private companies from getting money from H.360.
“By excluding the private internet service provider companies that arguably have installed much of the existing infrastructure and eliminating them from the benefit of this bill, all Vermonters will not be served,” Morris said.
“We want all our remote learners and business employees to have adequate broadband service. Private business is needed to make this happen,” he said.
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