In the early 1930s, about 3 percent of farms — America's rural homesteads — had electricity.
That started to change in 1936, when Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act. Funded by low-cost federal loans and managed by member-owned cooperatives, crews of REA electricians traveled across the country, wiring up houses and barns in the nation's most remote and rural regions. Quite literally, this sweeping New Deal initiative brought power to the people.
Today, expanding access to high-speed internet is just as vital — for economic development, for public safety, for education and information — as expanding access to electricity was during the Great Depression. But this time around, there's no REA crew coming to string fiber to your farmhouse. Instead, communities across Vermont are banding together to take advantage of the financing tools and resources offered by H.513, the new rural broadband bill that Gov. Phil Scott signed into law last June as Act 79.
"No one is coming to save you," Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-West Dover) told Vermont Business Magazine last July, referring to rural regions that lack connectivity. Sibilia, who serves on the House Energy and Technology Committee, was a key sponsor of the legislation. "This is critical, critical work H.513 is a game-changer."
With that in mind, last November I organized a public forum in Manchester with Sibilia and Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs) to connect local residents with rural broadband experts from the Vermont Department of Public Service. At that well-attended meeting, we formed a task force that has taken off like a rocket, chaired by Tim Scoggins of Shaftsbury with committed volunteers from a dozen Southern Vermont towns. The task force aims to take advantage of Act 79 by:
1. Creating the Southern Vermont Communications Union District via town meeting votes in 12 Bennington County towns: Arlington, Bennington, Dorset, Landgrove, Manchester, Pownal, Peru, Rupert, Sandgate, Shaftsbury, Sunderland and Woodford. A CUD is a governance structure, like a water or wastewater district, that allows multiple towns to band together to solve problems as a united region.
2. Seeking a grant under Act 79 for a feasibility study and three-year business plan.
3. Contracting with an Internet Service Provider to build out fiber-optic cable to under-served areas in the SoVT CUD, providing world-class internet speeds across the region.
At town meeting, you'll have a chance to decide whether your town will join the SoVT CUD. I urge you to vote "yes."
A key thing to remember: Joining a CUD will not raise your taxes. By state law, tax dollars cannot be used to pay for communications infrastructure. Instead, the broadband build-out will be funded by grants, donations, and service fees from subscribers. Your town's only responsibility to the CUD is to appoint a representative and an alternate to the governing board.
At a time when our state is working hard to retain and attract residents, it's critical that everyone can get connected, whether you live in downtown Manchester or on a dirt road in Sandgate.
According to the Vermont Department of Public Service, approximately 74 percent of our state is currently reached by broadband, defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a minimum of minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. This important initiative is about that missing 26 percent — the "last mile" roads and regions where our friends, neighbors and colleagues don't have that same crucial connection.
Spurred by Act 79, CUDs are forming all over the state, from Windham County to the Northeast Kingdom. Don't let your town get left behind!
To learn more, go to https://publicservice.vermont.gov/content/broadband-innovation-grant-program
Kathleen James represents Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and part of Sunderland in the Vermont House of Representatives. Follow her on Facebook (Kathleen James VT State Representative) or email: KJames@leg.state.vt.us.