Gov. Scott OKs broadband legislation

MONTPELIER — While Internet access was once a luxury, it is now seen as a basic necessity. This past Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott emphasized that point as he signed a bill in Dover that could help bring high-speed broadband to those living in the most remote locations — commonly referred to as reaching “the last mile.”
The bill, known as H. 513, received bipartisan support and provides funding for the expansion of broadband access in underserved areas. Seven percent of Vermont homes currently don’t have access to the most basic high-speed level of Internet access, and 20 percent lack modern Internet speeds.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, D-Bennington, who sponsored the bill, likened the deficiency of broadband in remote areas of the state to the need for rural electrification in the 1930s.
“Communities that are not connected, they are not going to grow, and people are not going to move there, and we’re seeing that they’re really going to be facing more and more vulnerability, literally, just in their ability to call for help,” said Sibilia.
Funding every household in the state in the most remote locations was not feasible for the state to finance, Sibilia noted, so instead the bill created a grassroots approach that allocates grants up to $60,000 to a town or groups of towns to support local communities in determining how to implement broadband access in their area.
The funding for this bill is being pooled from a variety of sources including the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, town funds, provider input and a .04% increase in the Vermont Universal Service Fund fee. The program will start with $955,000 allocated from the General Fund, and afterwards will be supported by small user fees on the systems.
In order to make broadband financially practical in the most remote locations, the bill is also considering ways to allow installers to use pre-existing electric utility infrastructure to distribute telecom services.
Siblia hopes that the bill will allow for communities throughout Vermont to follow the example of the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District (ECFiber), an electric cooperative made up of 24 member towns.
Founded in 2008, ECFiber is a community-owned fiber-optic network that has town members as stockholders and any excess revenue is returned to them. ECFiber has successfully provided full Internet coverage to eight member towns, and hopes to double this number by the end of the year.
The bill also allocates funding for a new position within the Department of Public Service that will work with communities to provide support for planning and any necessary technical assistance.
“If our folks do nothing, no one is coming to save them,” said Sibilia, explaining that the state lacks the funds to create a statewide network, and that the national telecom providers are not headed to rural Vermont any time soon.
Sibilia said hopes the bill will inspire communities to take control of their future, and bring the entire state into the next century, without leaving rural residents behind.
“This was folks all getting on board and really pushing for this,” said Sibilia, who emphasized that many individuals across the political spectrum came together to make the bill a success.

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