A slice of the $1 billion federal Covid-19 aid headed for Vermont could help save a broadband network used by libraries statewide, officials say.
“People will see an immediate benefit from this in their communities because libraries will suddenly be able to use more modern equipment in order to boost that WiFi signal out,” said Tom McMurdo, assistant state librarian.
Gov. Phil Scott unveiled a plan last week to divvy up money from the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March. The federal law allocates about $2.7 billion to Vermont through various programs, with nearly $1.3 billion going directly to the state government.
Among the big-ticket items in Scott’s proposal was a relatively small request: $500,000 for the FiberConnect Network, a fiber line that stretches more than 820 miles and provides high-speed internet to 40 libraries. The line stretches from Guilford to St. Johnsbury and enables libraries to offer speeds of up to 100 megabits per second for uploads and downloads.
“This network is running on obsolete equipment and is in danger of critical failure,” according to the April 6 proposal for saving the fiber line. It needs approval from legislators.
The network relies on a central server in Montpelier, and each library has its own equipment to deliver the broadband connection. But that equipment was installed eight or more years ago, Scott’s plan said.
Some pieces in the field have failed, and “virtually all of it” is so old that its manufacturer no longer supports it, the plan said. And when those pieces do fail, libraries have to find replacement parts of the same vintage, because newer equipment wouldn’t be compatible with the rest of the system.
“The equipment in all likelihood was cutting-edge eight or nine years ago, but that’s the useful life of network equipment,” said Clay Purvis, who heads the state Department of Public Service telecommunications division. “This is a network that’s overdue for an upgrade, and this project proposes to do that.”
McMurdo, who oversees the FiberConnect Network, said the equipment is bottlenecking the full capacity of the network.
With the upgrades, “the pipe effectively gets bigger,” he said, allowing library patrons to see faster, better and more stable connections.
Scott’s plan would allocate between $250,000 and $300,000 for upgrading the equipment and between $150,000 and $200,000 for labor and installation costs.
Public internet access, either through designated hotspots or institutions such as libraries, has been an important resource for people in less-connected areas of the state. As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, those services took on even greater importance as people looked for ways to work or learn remotely.
“Libraries have been a key piece in helping everyone stay connected,” said Barbara Ball, director of the Windsor Public Library and board member of the Vermont Library Association.
Just a few days ago, Ball said, a student sat in the library’s backyard and used its WiFi to take a test.
She’s optimistic about the funding proposal, which could allow libraries to extend their WiFi ranges and keep signals strong, even outside.
“It is very exciting that libraries (could) have money that can really help them better connect their communities,” she said.
Concerns about the network predate the pandemic, according to a telecommunications recovery plan published by the state Department of Public Service in December.
“Because of the age of the network but the need to use compatible systems, libraries buy electronics that are eight or nine years old, and report that it is becoming difficult to find equipment of that age,” the report said.
Some librarians told officials that the FiberConnect system was strained, and signals were not strong enough, the report said.
Equipment cannot be modernized piece by piece because it risks making devices incompatible with one another. So the new proposal calls for a complete overhaul.
“Virtually all the equipment on the system is either end-of-life or considered obsolete,” McMurdo said. “So we are — with fingers crossed — hoping no pieces of this equipment will break before we can replace them.”
The network was built between 2010 and 2013 as part of a three-year, multimillion-dollar project to provide better internet to hundreds of public facilities across the state.
The system was financed by more than $33 million in federal grants, $2 million from the state and a $400,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Sovernet — now known as Firstlight — built the network and invested more than $12 million in the project.
The $500,000 request is part of more than $250 million Scott is seeking for broadband-related programs. Purvis praised those other, larger proposals, but also important are smaller-scale barriers to universal broadband adoption, he said, such as lacking digital literacy or the costs of services.
“Libraries are a really important way to overcome those barriers currently,” he said.
State Librarian Jason Broughton hopes that the money is appropriated soon, so “we could start (the upgrades) almost immediately.”
The timing would be perfect if the state’s broader vision of universal broadband access plays out as planned, Broughton said.
In a few years time, libraries would be able to come off the FiberConnect system, he said, after keeping communities connected for more than a decade.
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