Christine Hallquist Says Building Out Broadband Is More Daunting Than Run for Gov | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Fair Game

Mark Johnson Political Columnist

Christine Hallquist Says Building Out Broadband Is More Daunting Than Run for Gov

By

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
FILE: KYM BALTHAZAR
  • File: Kym Balthazar

Christine Hallquist is feeling the pressure.

As the just-appointed leader of the state's effort to extend broadband internet access to every corner of Vermont, Hallquist knows tens of thousands of people are counting on her. And flush with $250 million in federal funds to work with over the next three years, she knows a lack of money can't be an excuse. 

You'd think running for governor as the country's first major-party transgender candidate would have been the hardest challenge of her life. But Hallquist said her 2018 long-shot bid against incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott pales in comparison to the broadband assignment.

"In the governor's race, someone's going to win and someone's going to lose, but this one, we can't afford to lose," Hallquist told Fair Game. "Running for governor was stressful, but it wasn't pressure. This has pressure — pressure to perform."

Not everyone thinks the state's effort to provide 100 percent universal broadband access will be completely successful. But there's widespread agreement that Scott picked the right person to lead the Vermont Community Broadband Board, a five-member panel created by the legislature to expand high-speed internet access in underserved rural areas. Scott also wins praise for reaching across the political aisle and asking a onetime rival to take the $120,000-a-year post.

Many liken the broadband push to the federal government's efforts in the 1930s to extend electrical power into the sticks. Electricity had become a necessity back then, just as high-speed internet is today. The pandemic only spotlighted the need.

"It's no longer acceptable to not have access everywhere people live," said Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-West Dover), a Statehouse leader on broadband expansion who was named to the board last week. "You have to be able to connect to the internet for education, health care, justice, access to government, employment." 

Scott called broadband expansion "an important step toward increasing regional economic equity." U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said it's an "existential necessity."

"What we did with rural electrification was acknowledge that we cannot depend on these big providers," Welch said. Instead, electric co-ops were created, similar to the communications union districts that have formed to help rural broadband expansion. "They don't care about us if we're out in rural Vermont ... When you get a communications district, the folks there care deeply ... and are totally committed to getting that fiber-optic cable to every home, in every business."

The state's most recent 10-year telecommunications plan says 51,000 households can't get the minimum high-speed service. But Hallquist said the figure is closer to 100,000 locations that "aren't going to get fiber in the long term by private business. That's where the CUDs should focus."

The idea is to use public funds to build the fiber network where others won't and then have private companies provide the service.

As it is now, Sibilia said, private companies are upgrading their networks in more highly populated areas, overlapping and potentially "cannibalizing" each other while rural areas are ignored.

The good news is that underserved towns were already forming the regional CUDs pre-pandemic. Those nine districts will oversee building the infrastructure. They'll also find the private companies to provide service or, if they have to, do it themselves, Hallquist said. 

It's key for the CUDs to maintain control of the networks, Hallquist said. Simply paying providers to build out the infrastructure could later leave consumers hostage to poor service.

Jeremy Hansen of CVFiber said the CUDs are independent but "all working in an informal partnership to make sure that everybody succeeds." Many CUDs have partnered with regional planning commissions, he said, to ensure their long-term viability. 

Consumer patience, Hallquist offered, will be key. Reaching all underserved homes is expected to take up to seven years, she said. About 25 percent are in the Northeast Kingdom; another 10 percent are in Lamoille County, Hallquist added. 

Sibilia and Hallquist are concerned about finding enough workers to lay fiber; Sibilia also noted that fiber-optic cable could be hard to obtain with strong worldwide demand.

When CUDs were first authorized pre-pandemic, the goal was to cobble together enough grants, loans and "all the money we can find under the couch cushions" to reach underserved areas, Sibilia said.

But the flood of federal funds from the pandemic, some set aside for broadband expansion, will "accelerate" reaching the goal, Sibilia said. Hallquist compared it to the relief money that flowed in after Tropical Storm Irene, which enabled the state to finance badly needed upgrades to bridges and roads.

Hallquist's prior experience running the Vermont Electric Coop for 13 years is sure to serve her well. She has also worked with two CUDs, NEK Broadband and Lamoille FiberNet.

"When you leave people in the backwater, they're going to lash out. So this is important for our democracy. It's important for our economy," Hallquist told Fair Game. "You've got to take care of your rural residents and help them participate."

Will Leahy or Won't Leahy?

The headline was mouthwatering to followers of Vermont's favorite parlor game: Will 81-year-old U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) seek a ninth term next year? 

"Campaign finance reports raise questions about Leahy's reelection plans," VTDigger.org proclaimed last week.

The story noted that the most recent filing showed Leahy raising only $430,000 the last three months compared to the same period six years ago, when he raised $777,000. 

"Leahy is not raising money at the same pace one might expect if he's going to run for reelection next year," the first sentence read.

Really? So raising $430,000 suggests he's slow-walking and getting ready to bow out?

Hogwash. The Federal Election Commission report tells us nothing about his plans. 

The reason Leahy raised less than "one might expect" might have had to do with his long days as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, getting items such as a small-state minimum into the American Rescue Plan, which resulted in $1 billion for Vermont. Also, it's a little harder (and tacky) to raise campaign contributions during a pandemic when it has to be done virtually and not in person. Campaign manager Carolyn Dwyer said Leahy has held 13 virtual fundraising events this year, along with "many" one-on-one phone calls with donors.

If he runs, he'll have enough money, Dwyer said. 

"Patrick doesn't have to raise a dime to be reelected," observed Rep. Welch, who hasn't asked Leahy about his plans. Welch worked on Leahy's first campaign, in 1974. "I think [Leahy's] in George Aiken territory." The iconic senator, whom Leahy succeeded, spent $17.09 on his last campaign in 1968.

Leahy also has $2 million left over from his last campaign. If he says he's running, donations will pour in. He doesn't need a huge war chest. What Republican other than Gov. Scott would have a snowball's chance? Even Scott wants him to run again.

So do a few other folks listed as recent donors, including Robert Iger, the chair of Walt Disney, and director Steven Spielberg and his spouse, the actress Kate Capshaw. Former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey and retired ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson also gave Leahy money.

Sam Donaldson?

"They've gotten to know each other over the years," Dwyer said. 

Veteran Vermont political analyst Eric Davis shared this advice: Assume Leahy is running until he "explicitly" says he isn't. Davis also suggests that reporters spend more time on meatier issues than reading the Leahy tea leaves.

Fat chance.

Church and Press

A regional First Amendment organization was right to oust veteran reporter Mike Donoghue from its board last week for his involvement on a Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington committee examining sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests.

The New England First Amendment Coalition said Donoghue's service on the committee presented "serious concerns about the perception, at least, of a conflict between the committee's work and NEFAC's mission advocating transparency and holding powerful institutions to account."

The seven-member lay committee was set up in 2018 to pore over church records and determine which Vermont priests had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a child. Its work resulted in 40 priests being publicly identified. Some news editors and ethics experts questioned Donoghue's involvement back then.

After the committee issued its report, Donoghue stayed involved in case new allegations came up, which happened recently. He was quoted in a news story last week saying his review of the church files found no information to support the latest allegation. That story prompted NEFAC to ask him to resign, a development VTDigger first reported.

Donoghue cried foul, noting in a statement "the obvious irony" of objecting "to a member of a First Amendment coalition practicing one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment — Freedom of Religion."

That's a stretch, Mike. No one is suggesting you stop going to church.

Donoghue worked at the Burlington Free Press for 45-plus years before retiring in 2015. During four of those years, I worked 10 feet away from him, covering crime and Burlington City Hall. Donoghue is a dogged reporter whose Rolodex boasts the home phone numbers of Vermont chiefs of police. He's won numerous reporting and press freedom awards and helped get cameras into Vermont courtrooms.

In an interview, Donoghue conceded that ethics rules at the Free Press would likely have prevented him from joining the church committee. But he said he was semiretired when he signed on and agreed with editors at newspapers where he freelances that he wouldn't write about the church. He said he spent hundreds of hours poring through church documents to make sure nothing that should have been included in the report was missed.

Impartiality is a reporter's most important asset. To maintain that, reporters shouldn't do things like make political contributions, march at rallies or sign petitions. Donoghue agreed but said practicing his faith was different.

"About politics and things like that? Yes. About my Catholic faith? No," he said.

"I was actually appointed [to the committee] not because I was a reporter," Donoghue told Fair Game this week. "I was appointed because I happen to be a human being first, a Catholic second, and I became a reporter when I was 18. So, I'm going to be, I assume, a human being and a Catholic long after I stop writing."

True, and Donoghue has every right to serve, but a press organization can also be fairly queasy about his role and the optics it creates. 

Perhaps the Vermont Press Association, where Donoghue serves as part-time executive director and which backed him last Friday, should reconsider its support. There are plenty of Vermont journalists with no baggage who could take on that job.

Correction, August 26, 2021: An earlier version of this story misstated the year the diocesan lay committee was set up, and also misreported how long Mike Donoghue had worked at the Free Press. Lastly, the makeup of the New England First Amendment Coalition was mischaracterized.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Hallquist's Challenge"