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April 19, 2021

The Next Few Weeks Will Decide Whether Broadband is Affordable for All Vermonters

There is enormous opportunity; never has Vermont had to decide so quickly what to do with so much money. Never than in this almost post-pandemic world has there been such urgency to bring Vermonters stranded on the wrong side of broadband gulch the internet connections to the world they need. The urgency won’t go away but the opportunity can disappear if we don’t act quickly and decisively. Decisions that the legislature makes in the next few weeks will shape Vermont’s future for the decade to come.

There is general agreement that the vast bulk of federal dollars available for broadband should go to building long-term infrastructure – even while there is disagreement over who should build that infrastructure and what should be built where. There is time to solve those disagreements. There is also general agreement that it will take at least four or five years for this buildout to be completed. Those proposing to do the buildouts are not promising that the new services constructed will be affordable. In most rural parts of the state, usable broadband access is so expensive today that low-income people simply can’t afford it. Solving the access problem doesn’t solve the affordability problem.

There is serious disagreement over whether a small share of these Rescue dollars should be used for what seems like the short-term purpose of subsidizing low-income people so that they can access broadband NOW from their homes rather than from the parking lot of McDonalds. Shouldn’t all the dollars be spent, serious people ask, meeting our long-term needs? If we subsidize service now when we have federal dollars available, what happens to the subsidies and/or the state budget when the subsidies run out

Serious questions deserve a serious answer. These questions must be answered quickly because, if no funds are allocated to the problem of making broadband universally affordable before this legislature adjourns in May, far too many Vermonters will remain offline for at least another year. In fact, it’s worse than that because, if all the Rescue money is allocated to other projects, the opportunity to use it to close the broadband gap will be lost for the foreseeable future.

Answer 1: Closing the broadband gap is a one- time problem if, at the end of the gap closing, every Vermont family which needs to study from home, get medical attention at home, and work from home lives in a connected home. The health and economics and prospects of connected families will increase; unconnected families are trapped as if they’d been cut off by a flood. Before the pandemic we learned in school, went to the doctor’s office or emergency room for medical problems, and worked away from home. In the new world we must be able to do all these things from home as well. That need isn’t going away. We could even be locked down again by some vaccine-resistant variant or new disease.

Answer 2: Many of the dollars spent connecting homes to services already available will only have to be spent once. Connecting a home to the fiber already going by it is expensive; but it only needs to be done once. Other connections such as a dish for wireless will provide many years of connectivity before fiber is available at the end of the road.

Answer 3. The hundreds of millions in one-time construction dollars can be used to assure that subsidies are not needed into perpetuity by requiring that ISPs who build new networks with Rescue money offer low-income plans on these new networks immediately and eventually on any other networks they have in Vermont. This requirement will assure that, unlike previous projects done with public money, we don’t end up with networks which only some Vermonters can afford to use.

The Vermont Senate Finance Committee has H.360, the broadband bill, in its hands. They have listened to proposals on affordable access as well as many different plans for allocating the long-term construction dollars. It’s a good time to email the Senators below and urge them to assure that a small fraction of the dollars available be used to close the broadband affordability gap now. They will know why you are talking about if you reference the proposals made by Sen. Brock.

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