Saying the state’s digital divide can’t wait for the build-out of fiber-optic infrastructure, proponents of a plan that would in part rely on multibillionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service made their case for a quicker fix Monday.
Speakers including Tom Evslin, of the Broadband Equity Now coalition, and Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, a main sponsor of a broadband bill that will be considered Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee, said Vermont can’t wait for the time it will take to build a fiber-optic network — five years, according to Evslin.
The coalition said 35 percent of Vermonters live in areas where high-speed broadband is out of their price range, and another 15 percent live in areas where there’s no service at all.
Both said it’s essential to make the most of millions in federal high-speed broadband dollars to bridge the state’s digital gap, for students, new residents who wish to telecommute, and for telemedicine.
Brock said the problem needs to be viewed in the way it affects people.
“We spend a lot of time talking about technology. What’s really important to keep in mind is that all the technology in the world is useless unless its affordable,” Brock said.
Evslin said about 50,000 Vermonters would be eligible for assistance under the plan.
The proposal calls for a “Broadband Corps” to help underserved Vermonters link up with service, and proposes to use a total of $26 million of state funding to subsidize start-up costs, keep monthly bills under $25 for qualifying families, and establish the Broadband Corps.
The proposal would also make use of Starlink, a satellite broadband service being started by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. The service is still in beta testing mode, and is controversial because Musk intends to use proceeds to fund his planned mission to Mars.
Former gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, a former utility executive now heading the 32-town NEK Broadband Communications District, has used the service and said it’s “not ready for prime time.” And Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, has said she has “less than zero” interest in the state engaging a private company with no accountability to Vermonters.
But Evslin emphasized that the state would not be putting all its eggs into Starlink’s basket, but taking advantage of the opportunity so that the problem can be solved as quickly as possible.
“The point isn’t that Starlink is better than fiber. The point is Starlink is better than not having broadband,” Evslin said.
Three things are different from past broadband initiatives, Evslin said: Advances in technology “that allows us to get to end of the road without digging up the middle of the road”; a supply of federal funds; and more state control over the use of rescue funds.
Brock’s bill, S. 118, has a great deal in common with H. 360, the broadband proposal passed by the House last month. But the Senate bill is less focused on Communications Union Districts (CUDs) than its House counterpart. It would not mandate that internet service providers receiving loan funds work with CUDs.
“If we look forward to the next five years, CUDs are unlikely to be the only distributors” of high speed broadband, Brock said. “What S.118 does is envision all these various providers will be in the mix. .. in my mind, diversification is critically important.”
Brock also noted that many CUDs are just getting established, and that they don’t cover every part of the state. Indeed, there are urban areas with established providers, and “we still have problems with connectivity, availability and affordability,” he said.
Asked if he sees his bill as complimentary to H, 360, Brock said he hopes the two bills can be reconciled at the end of the process.
“I think this is a promising proposal,” Brock said. “I like that we are dealing with the human side of broadband.”