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October 18, 2009

Vermont’s Broadband Recommendations

Which broadband grant applicants does Vermont like or not like? That's the question the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is the part of the US Commerce Department and is charged with distributing some of the stimulus funding for broadband, asked the Economic Stimulus and Recovery (ESR) office, which has the responsibility for answering such questions in Vermont.


The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or "the stimulus bill") requires NTIA to consult with the states. Originally NTIA said it would do a preliminary screen of applications, then give the screened list to the states. When they saw how many applications there were, however, they decided to give the whole unscreened list to the states – which is what we'd asked them to do in the first place. Trouble is we're not sure how much attention they'll pay to our recommendations. They made clear that they would neither accept nor reject an application purely on our say so.


Just to make things a little more confusing, we are only asked to look at those applications submitted to NTIA. The stimulus bill also gave money to Rural Utilities Service (RUS, part of the US Agriculture Department) to finance broadband. RUS is coordinating with NTIA and many, but not all, applications were made jointly to RUS and NTIA. However, RUS is not required by the law to consult with the states so it isn't going to do so.


Vermont ESR was well positioned to look at the applications since we had coordinated the preparation of a set of applications statewide which could, at best, result in broadband coverage in Vermont expanding to at least 95% of the residences in the state. We recommended those applications when they were initially submitted. However, only four of these coordinated applications were applications to NTIA (two other were RUS only); so we only got to opine on the four (but we snuck in a good word for the RUS applications just in case).  These four applications span the three separate categories in which NTIA plans to fund projects:  Infrastructure (including both last mile and middle mile applications), Sustainable Broadband Adoption, and Public Computing Centers.


The four applications which got our highest recommendation because of their importance and synergy were:

  1.  A last mile application from local carrier VTel to offer Wireless Broadband to serve unserved areas of southern and central Vermont and to upgrade its existing service in the Springfield area to very modern fiber. (Note: VTel proposes to use newly-available 700 MHz spectrum, which is old UHF TV spectrum now available due to the transition from analog to digital broadcasting.)
  2. A last mile application by FairPoint to serve unserved portions of the very rural Northeast Kingdom. Even though FairPoint is having financial and other difficulties, the assets they propose to build are badly needed by the residents and businesses of this area.
  3. A sustainable broadband adoption application by The Vermont Council on Rural Development. Their proposal is to help overcome obstacles to broadband adoption in newly-served communities such as lack of training, lack of equipment, lack of money, and lack of relevant local content. Greater adoption obviously means more benefit from any deployment; a higher adoption rate also improves the difficult economic of rural broadband deployment.
  4. A public computing center proposal by the Vermont Department of Libraries aimed at assuring that libraries are well-equipped in areas where broadband is not widely available. This both helps mitigate (but doesn't solve) the availability problem and builds a user base for broadband when it does arrive.


We recommended two other applications as well: 

  1. A middle mile application by TelJet Longhaul, LLC which, if funded, will improve backbone connections to and from Boston and within Vermont and significantly increase bandwidth, redundancy, and wholesale and commercial broadband competition in parts of the state.
  2. A sustainable broadband adoption application by Health Care and Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern Vermont, Inc that proposes to use broadband resources to mitigate the chronic shortage of mental health professionals in the area.

Although we like to be positive, we recommended AGAINST many applications including all proposals to use satellite service to provide broadband. Although satellite is better than dialup, it's not good enough to meet the broadband needs of Vermonters and other rural Americans. We don't think Hughes Network Systems and EchoStar should be grabbing off the available grant money to build substandard solutions. Most of the rest of the applications we recommended against were national proposals that claimed to bring benefits to Vermont but didn't substantiate that claim.


You can read our full recommendation to NTIA at http://recovery.vermont.gov/broadband#staterecommendation.

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