Vermont lawmakers ironed out their differences on how best to spend public money to expand broadband service, clearing the way for a $150 million infusion to speed the deployment of high-speed internet across the state.
The conference committee formed to reconcile Senate and House versions of the much-anticipated broadband bill, H.360, hammered out a compromise on Tuesday. Both chambers signed off on the deal on Wednesday.
“This represents, I hope, a finely tuned vehicle that will get us much further than we could ever imagine going,” Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), told her colleagues, who passed the compromise unanimously.
Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) said the original bill promised a "paradigm shift" in funding the "historic infrastructure project" of bringing broadband to every corner of the state.
"The report from the committee of conference delivers that shift, with a new community broadband model to connect all Vermonters," Sibilia said.
The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott.
The bill creates a new structure through which federal American Rescue Plan Act funds will flow to aid the rollout of blazing fast internet at 100 megabits per second. Sibilia noted that about a quarter of the state doesn't even have basic broadband, defined as 25 megabits per second.
Instead of issuing grants directly to internet service providers to expand broadband service, as has been the state's practice, the bill will channel future grants through a new Vermont Community Broadband Board, which would direct the money almost exclusively to communications union districts.
Such districts have been forming quickly in recent years, with the state's encouragement and following the success of the community-backed ECFiber effort in the Upper Valley.
Nine such districts now cover 200 towns in the state. After being burned by past grant efforts, lawmakers want to ensure future funds flow through public organizations committed to and accountable for making broadband available to all residents, not just the addresses private companies find profitable. They liken the effort to rural electrification.
Cummings stressed that directing such grant dollars in this way would not hinder private companies from expanding their own networks as they see fit.
“Anybody can pretty much do anything they want on their own dime,” she said. “We’re setting the conditions to access state money.”
Private internet providers, including small telecommunications companies, pushed back against the bill and argued that 100 megabits per second — which can only now be supplied by fiber optic lines — favor certain technologies over others.
They also argued that many people don’t need such high speeds, and that existing providers are best positioned to do the work now.
Rep. Tim Briglin (D-Thetford) told his colleagues on Tuesday that the higher bar made sense because data needs are increasing "exponentially" as the pandemic has pushed multiple household members to access the internet simultaneously.
The Senate bill was “more permissive” than the House’s toward allowing some funds for private providers, Briglin noted.
The compromise allows private firms to qualify for grants if they work with a municipality that wasn’t part of a communications union district before June 1, and only if the work is toward the goal of universal coverage.
Another difference: the House wanted the broadband board to be independent and operate outside of the Department of Public Service, which also serves a regulatory role for utilities. The Senate was content to have the board remain inside the department, arguing it would make the governor accountable for it. House members ultimately agreed.
While the five-member broadband board is being set up, the Department of Public Service is empowered to issue $20 million in grants toward broadband projects. To ensure taxpayer dollars are protected, networks built with the money will not be able to be sold without the approval of the board.