Broadband goal proves elusive
Federal and state programs continue to pump money into broadband projects, and there are hopes that more cash might be on the way from the U.S. government. But such programs have limitations. There's only one constant, officials and network administrators say: Town governments and local residents need to keep up the pressure or, in some cases, find solutions themselves.
"Unless you have people who are really upset about it, angry about it, ready to take control of it, it won't go anywhere," Carole Monroe, chief executive of South Royalton-based ECFiber, said during a recent meeting in Windham County.
Expanding broadband service has been a high priority but also an elusive target for state leaders. Obstacles include the high cost of building such networks; low population density throughout much of Vermont; and the state's lack of regulatory authority over high-speed internet providers.
At a southern Vermont "connectivity summit" held earlier this month in Dover, state and federal officials highlighted the clear divide that still exists between internet haves and have-nots.
Clay Purvis, director of the state Public Service Department's telecommunications and connectivity division, split internet availability into three categories measured by the number of megabits per second available for downloads and uploads. About 13 percent of Vermont's 911 addresses have access to the highest tier — fiber optic lines allowing for 100 megabits per second for downloads and uploads. Purvis said a much bigger swath of the state, about 72 percent of all 911 addresses, can access speeds generally associated with cable service — 25 megabits for download and three megabits for upload. That speed is what the Federal Communications Commission defines as broadband. And then there is the lowest tier, which the state defines as four megabits for download and just one megabit per second for uploads. Nearly 91 percent of the state's 911 addresses have so-called 4/1 service.
At the Dover meeting, Purvis took some heat from audience members who said 4/1 service is inadequate for most basic internet uses. But he said the state continues to map such speeds "because we have so many people that aren't served even with 4/1. They have nothing."
While the state's broadband maps are constantly changing, they generally show that "where there's (population) density, there's service," Purvis said.
"When you go down your dirt roads, that's where you're starting to run into underserved areas," he said.
That digital divide is a national problem. Megan Sullivan, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the 1996 Telecommunications Act mandates that "rural customers should have the same or reasonably comparable prices and quality of service to their urban counterparts."
When it comes to broadband, "I don't think anybody can say with a straight face that that has come to fruition at this point," Sullivan said.
For example, Sullivan said 10 percent of all Americans lack access to "advanced broadband," defined as 25/3 megabits per second. But 39 percent of rural Americans can't access that speed. Overall, 20 percent of rural Americans don't even have access to 4/1 megabit speeds.
The disparity hampers rural students and businesses, and it limits access to important new services like telemedicine, Sullivan said. She said there's hope for increased federal money for broadband expansion. Potential sources include a Farm Bill set for revision next year as well as a potential infrastructure bill that's been mentioned as a Trump administration priority.
Welch also opposes any effort to downgrade the federal government's definition of adequate broadband speeds, Sullivan said.
"This isn't about making maps look good," she said. "This is about actually serving rural America."
Purvis said there was an influx of federal cash during the recession that began in the late 2000s, resulting in large-scale fiber optic projects in Vermont. But he said those projects largely did not reach the so-called "last mile" occupied by rural customers.
"It became abundantly clear that what is needed is last-mile infrastructure," Purvis said. "And our program is designed to do that."
That happens via the Public Service Department's Connectivity Initiative, which is supported by the Vermont Universal Service Fund, a surcharge on telecommunications services. This past summer, the state handed out almost $550,000 to three providers to upgrade high-speed internet service at more than 300 addresses.
But there's a limited amount of state cash to go around. And Purvis said those grants are much more effective when there's a "grass-roots effort" to identify areas where broadband is most needed.
"I want people to have what they want, not necessarily what I think they need or the federal government thinks they need," Purvis said.
At the Dover summit, state Rep. Laura Sibilia offered a more blunt assessment of the need for local action.
"If you don't have connectivity at the speeds that you want in your community right now in rural southern Vermont, the odds are pretty good that that's not going to change unless you do something," said Sibilia, I-Dover.
For rural Vermonters seeking better broadband, "doing something" has a number of definitions. ECFiber is a communications union district. Enabled by a 2015 state law, such districts allow municipalities to band together to deliver communications services and own related infrastructure. ECFiber — the "EC" stands for East Central Vermont — is a "community owned, subscriber-financed" fiber network aimed at connecting rural homes and businesses directly to high-speed fiber optic lines.
There are more than 2,100 customers so far, with more expansion planned next year.
"Most of this territory has been pretty much ignored" by other fiber providers, Monroe said. ECFiber has not received any federal funding and has relied in part on "bootstrap crowd-financing," Monroe said. She also noted that the legal structure of a communications union district has helped attract investors due to its similarity to municipal utility districts, which routinely borrow for public infrastructure projects.
"It's been a great tool for us," Monroe said.
Communications union districts aren't the only mechanism for such development. On a much smaller scale, residents in Stamford founded a cooperative to bring wireless broadband to their town on the Massachusetts border.
And next door in Readsboro, a group of volunteers organized last year to assess their lack of broadband and seek something better.
While some communities debate available broadband speeds, "we were just looking for anything," said Omar Smith, a member of the Readsboro committee. "Many people had no option other than dialup or satellite."
The relatively new group has not yet been able to spur any development, but Smith expressed optimism that Readsboro will see stronger internet service. "We are willing to work with any providers that want to expand their service in town," he said.
In Dover, officials are taking a different approach fueled by their 1 percent local option sales tax. That fund helped improve connectivity several years ago in East Dover, said Steve Neratko, the town's economic development director. Dover officials now are considering working with FairPoint — which earlier this year was purchased by Illinois-based Consolidated Communications — to build out a fiber network in town.
"At this point, we're looking into what financing options we have," Neratko said.
But for every success story or pending project, there are many communities where residents don't feel like they have broadband options. Frustration was evident at the Dover summit, where residents repeatedly interrupted Purvis to ask about the accuracy of his maps and coverage assessments.
Marlboro resident Steven John serves on his town's connectivity committee. He said it's helpful to hear stories from other towns, but it remains "a bit daunting" trying to figure out how to improve Marlboro's spotty broadband coverage.
"We haven't been able to get the providers ... to respond to our requests for connectivity estimates," John said.
Mike Faher writes for VTDigger and the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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