Vermont leaders say federal money for broadband could help close ‘digital divide’

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks at a press conference at the Burlington International Airport in South Burlington on Thursday, December 26, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The influx of federal dollars Vermont will soon receive will be the key to connecting tens of thousands of rural homes to the internet. 

“You’re poised to make very serious inroads in connecting every corner of Vermont,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told participants in a roundtable discussion Wednesday about broadband expansion — including U.S Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.; Gov. Phil Scott; Lt. Gov. Molly Gray; and legislative leaders.

Vermont expects $2.7 billion in federal money from the American Rescue Plan that was signed into law last month, including $1.25 billion that state officials have discretion to spend on Covid-19 relief measures and infrastructure projects. 

Lawmakers and the Scott administration are already linking the money to internet expansion. 

“I’d venture to say that this issue has been the white whale for governors and legislatures across the country, and that’s definitely true for Vermont,” Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said of broadband expansion. 

“So for years, we’ve said that what we need is just a big chunk of change that we can finally invest to get everyone connected. And now it seems like we might actually have the resources we need to close this digital divide in Vermont,” she said. 

Lawmakers and Scott already proposed using $150 million to expand internet service. The House has already passed that proposal, and the Senate is working on it now. 

The day before the roundtable, the governor unveiled a plan for spending $1 billion of the federal money, including an even larger $225 million investment in broadband. 

Vermont is talking about “the largest investment in broadband the state has ever seen,” House Speaker Jill Krowinsk, D-Burlington, said. “We have long talked about the need to expand broadband in Vermont, and the pandemic has only highlighted the issue and made it clear. There are tremendous disparities and a socioeconomic divide between those connected and those unconnected in our state.” 

“Think about the possibilities this investment could bring us: education transformation, better rural health care, more global internet sales and other cutting-edge economic opportunities,” Scott said during the panel discussion. 

“World-class broadband will allow Vermonters to access jobs in other parts of the world and bring new opportunities for Vermont’s businesses to reach customers all over the world as well,” he said.

State officials estimate 60,000 Vermont residences have no internet connection or limited service. The Scott administration estimates that the governor’s plan would connect nearly 53,000 of those homes to the internet. 

The House plan and the governor’s proposal would steer the money to communications union districts — community-owned fiber-optic networks that serve multiple towns — to expand service to underserved areas within their regions. 

Communications union districts typically operate in rural areas where private internet providers have declined to expand service. But those districts often partner with private providers to operate fiber networks.  

Evan Carlson, the chair of NEK Community Broadband, a communications union district in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, told the panel that his organization would need $120 million to achieve its goal of “universal service” in the region. 

The communications union district serves towns in Orleans, Caledonia and Essex counties — among the most rural in Vermont. Last year, Carlson said about half of the homes in the region lacked an internet connection above 25 megabytes per second — the federal government’s minimum standard for what qualifies as broadband service. 

Even with the federal windfall, it could take years to build out the fiber infrastructure needed to serve rural addresses throughout the state. 

Gray said she believes that, in addition to long-term broadband expansion, the state should come up with a “short-term companion emergency solution” to get Vermonters connected immediately.

“While I agree with some of the long-term proposals that have been put forward to build out permanent broadband, and I don’t think that’s in question, those proposals can’t come at the expense of those Vermonters who don’t have access right now, day in and day out,” Gray said. 

A state-commissioned broadband plan released late last year recommended deploying mobile hotspots to homes throughout the state as a temporary solution so more Vermonters would have internet access during the pandemic. 

While Vermont is already due to receive millions of dollars that could be used for internet expansion, even more funding could soon be on the way. Welch has proposed a bill with Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, that would distribute an additional $80 billion for broadband expansion. 

He expects the legislation, the “Connect America Act,” will be part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, though it’s still unclear how much of the money would come to Vermont.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much federal money would go to broadband expansion.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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