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September 06, 2009

Broadband Stimulus in Vermont

Grants.gov kept crashing on August 14, the deadline for submitting applications for broadband stimulus funding; not to worry, the feds extended the deadline by six days – and even then had to allow submission of attachments to the application on CD by mail since their systems weren't yet stable by the new deadline.

Nevertheless Vermont organizations managed to file a set of applications which, if funded in the entirety, will leave less than 10,000 homes out of 242,000 without access to broadband AND will give us a very good start on attacking other obstacles to broadband use like lack of computers, training or money. The goal of SmartVermont, our overall plan for discretionary stimulus money, is not just universal broadband availability; it's universal adoption so that applications like e-health, e-education, and e-energy (smart grid) can depend on broadband connections in every Vermont building on the electrical grid.

Five Vermont organizations applied for over $130 million of stimulus grants and loans for last mile broadband projects. Technologies proposed by the applicants include fiber to the home, DSL, and wireless. There is no guarantee that all of these (or even any of these) will be funded. We think (and hope) that these applications will have an advantage nationally because Vermont began a broadband mapping effort several years ago and the Vermont Office of Economic Stimulus and Recovery (ESR, my department) was able to provide authoritative maps to be submitted with applications which demonstrate to the anonymous grant application reviewers that these proposals do, indeed, meet the stimulus requirement of bring service to the unserved. ESR also worked with the Department of Information and Innovation (DII) to coordinate broadband support plans for community anchor institutions like schools, hospitals, and government offices and get letters of support from those organizations for the applicants who promised to provide the organizations with high-capacity low-cost connections to the fiber backbone being built statewide by VELCO, the state's transmission utility. Applicants get extra points for supporting these institutions; the institutions, needless to say, need to get connected.

The Vermont Council for Rural Development requested $2.5 million for a sustainable broadband adoption program to help assure that Vermonters in 24 pilot communities have the equipment, training, and motivation to use broadband. This effort will focus on towns where broadband has recently become available or is just becoming available to speed up adoption so that broadband capabilities can quickly become part of community life. Also, the higher the adoption rate in a local community, the better the business case for the provider. We don't have as many homes per mile as more urbanized areas; but we can mitigate that economic disadvantage by having a higher percentage of homes which sign up. The Department of Public Service (DPS) and the State Colleges both helped with preparation of the sustainable adoption grant request.

The Vermont Center for Geographic Information applied for a $1.96 million grant to continue and extend Vermont's broadband mapping effort. Extended mapping will go beyond advertised claims to verify speed and quality of service down to the individual structure level. It will also be useful in making sure that successful last mile grant recipients deliver what they've promised. We are reasonably certain this application will be funded since the feds have said they plan to grant one such application in each state.

Recognizing that there are communities and families who don't currently have broadband or the equipment to use it, The Vermont Department of Libraries applied for 80% federal funding of a $754,000 public computing center project – basically computers in libraries. The Edgar May Health and Recreation Center in Springfield filed its own $4 million request for public computing center funds.

There is certainly no assurance that all of these Vermont applications will be funded. The funding agencies – the US Department of Agriculture and the Commerce Department – announced that almost 22,000 applications totaling nearly $28 billion were filed nationally; this is seven times the amount actually available for this round. The agencies plan to accept another round of applications by the end of this year and one more in spring, 2010.

ESR has begun work on a plan to make sure that the remaining Vermont households which were not covered by applications in this round will have applicants willing to provide service in the next round. As soon as preliminary results from this round are known, which could be as early as mid-September, any areas where applications were unsuccessful will be added to the to-do list. The goal remains 100% broadband availability AND adoption.



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