Vermont, one of the least populated states in the U.S., has to contend with plenty of broadband-related challenges. But state legislation and municipal providers have made bridging the digital divide a little easier.
Speaking with Fierce, Robert Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB), said Vermont’s issues are the same as elsewhere in the country. That is, traditional providers have only built out to areas they deem the most profitable, leaving the more rural and low-income areas “to fend for themselves.”
Act 71, passed by the state legislature in 2021, propelled universal broadband efforts in Vermont. The bill, which also established the VCBB, requires providers, most of whom are communications union districts (CUDs), to serve every single unserved address in their service area. Providers that want to receive funding from the VCBB must be capable of offering symmetrical speeds of at least 100 Mbps.
“That’s been our ongoing challenge of getting rid of the donut hole, where everybody around you is served but not the people who need it most,” said Fish. As for the 100 Mbps requirement, the state wants to ensure it’s investing in infrastructure that will last for the next 30-40 years.
“We don’t want infrastructure that’s going to need to be replaced, that’s not going to have the capacity…the speed that’s necessary for what’s coming not just today but what’s coming tomorrow,” he added.
Fiber will be the key for accelerating Vermont’s broadband deployment, whereas technology like fixed wireless “tends to over-promise and under-deliver.”
“It’s very scattered where it does reach,” Fish said. “What we’ve heard from customers is it’s not a solution. It’s also not a solution that can reach everyone, and that’s why Vermont has taken the focus of requiring 100/100 Mbps, which at this point, is only provided by fiber optics.”
CUDs are the primary vehicle for Vermont’s universal service model. These municipalities are comprised of mostly volunteers from the towns involved, with each town selecting one representative to sit on the CUD’s board.
“This board provides oversight, provides accountability, negotiates agreements to provide service or in almost all cases is owning the infrastructure,” he said. “So it’s a public investment, it’s going to maintain public ownership, which increases accountability and oversight and then they select the provider or providers that are going to be on that network.”
10 CUDs currently exist in Vermont, representing 214 out of 252 towns in the state. Most of the areas that don’t have fiber service are also included in these districts, Fish noted. Altogether, the CUDs cover around 76% of Vermont’s population.
Some incumbent ISPs, such as Consolidated Communications and Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (WCVT) have joined forces with CUDs to tackle the universal broadband goal, he added.
Areas where CUDs are doubling down on connectivity include Bennington County – where the Southern Vermont CUD is partnering with Consolidated – and the Northeast Kingdom, which Fish said makes up 55 towns and is the most rural and most unserved part of the state.
Urban areas have made progress as well, as Burlington – Vermont’s largest city – made an investment years ago to provide fiber-to-the-premises to all its residents, said Fish. And most of the denser locations also have access to cable. Still, that leaves “a large portion of the state without access to reliable broadband.”
Like other states, Vermont is working to correct the data on the Federal Communications Commission’s new broadband map. The VCBB has submitted challenges for about 45,000 addresses so far – addresses that were either submitted incorrectly, do not appear on the map or are shown as having high-speed broadband access when they do not.
But Fish feels the challenge process at its core is “upside down” and “stacked in favor of incumbents that over-reported.”
“It’s asking consumers to prove a negative,” he said. “It’s like going to the store, saying ‘oh, you’re only getting up to a gallon of milk, prove me wrong.’ You’re pitting individual residents against powerful telecom companies.”
Moreover, the FCC map displays the maximum advertised speed for ISPs. So if a company says they offer broadband speeds of say, up to 50 Mbps, “they don’t have to deliver on that,” Fish pointed out.
“So there are a lot of addresses that are included, that are marked as served, where the residents may only be getting 10/1,” he said. “And they run the risk of being left behind.” Over-reporting also puts the state’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funds at risk.
Challenges had to be submitted by January 13 to be incorporated into the FCC’s second version of the map, which will then be used to calculate BEAD funding allocations.
Following the money
From the federal government, Vermont has received $150 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and $95 million from the Capital Projects Fund (CPF), all of which is going into infrastructure, Fish said. The state is expecting a minimum of $100 million from the BEAD program.
“There’s going to be a problem if we don’t get a lot more, based on how much our state is still unserved,” he said. Vermont also applied for the NTIA’s Middle Mile program, proposing a $114 million fiber network that would span over 1,600 miles across the state. The state governor’s proposed 2023 budget includes $30 million to serve as a match, should Vermont receive the Middle Mile grant.
Fish noted that limited funding comes from Vermont’s Universal Service Fund (VUSF), which imposes a surcharge on all consumer phone bills in the state. The VUSF collects less than $1 million per year and is mostly used to cover capacity rather than for grant programs.
“At this point, the federal programs are the key to taking us across the finish line,” he said.
Asked what the federal government should take heed of in its own broadband efforts, Fish reiterated there needs to be more focus on achieving universal service. That is, when the federal government is approving grants, they should cover “a mix of addresses that are in dense areas and addresses that would not be served otherwise.”
Also, those on the federal level should “trust the people on the ground.” He said they know what they need way better than profit-driven companies that have an incentive to use methodologies that exaggerate their coverage.