For Northeast Kingdom's Digitally Unconnected, Help Is on the Way | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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For Northeast Kingdom's Digitally Unconnected, Help Is on the Way

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Published June 6, 2022 at 1:08 p.m.


MICHAEL TONN
  • Michael Tonn
When Christine Hallquist, the director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, bought her house in Wolcott last year, the home had never had internet installed — and there was no way for her to connect in the community.

There was no mobile phone signal, either, but otherwise, the house was a good fit. Hallquist decided to patch a solution together.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m the head of this program,’” said Hallquist, who is in charge of the state’s efforts to help communities connect to high-speed broadband. “If I can’t make this happen, we’re in trouble.”



Hallquist put up a dish to connect to Starlink, Elon Musk’s global internet venture; raised a 40-foot antenna to catch a mobile phone signal; and connected to a digital subscriber line, or DSL, through Consolidated Communications. Then she used software to create a system of coverage.

Now she has a pile of power cords hidden behind her desk — and enough bandwidth to stream movies.

“When things start getting crappy with Starlink, it switches to DSL, which switches to mobile wireless,” Hallquist said.

But solutions like that require technical skill, patience, and a big payout every month. For many unconnected Vermonters in the state's northeastern corner, an easier solution is on the way through NEK Broadband, one of the state’s nine communication union districts, or CUDs. The district is the first in the state to get federal COVID-19 relief money for high-speed internet through Act 71, the $150 million broadband program lawmakers approved in 2021.
NEK Broadband, which represents the towns in Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans counties, as well as Wolcott, will administer nearly $16 million of that in coming years as it works to strengthen community broadband connections. The district has connected 30 homes in Concord through a pilot program, but its ultimate goal is to connect the nearly  20,000 homes in the Northeast Kingdom that don’t have access to broadband now.

Right now, the district is soliciting requests from homeowners who need a broadband connection. Evan Carlson, who is chair of NEK Broadband, said the group is getting commitments from construction crews for next year, when its goal will be to build 50 miles a month en route to a total of 2,700 miles.

“We’re asking people to tell us, if we are coming by their home, do they want service?” Carlson said. Some people actually don’t  — such as Carlson’s great-uncle, who lived in Lyndonville. When it became available there, he chose not to connect.

“They wanted nothing to do with it,” Carlson said. “They were retired, and their life didn’t have anything at that point that required them to be digital.”

But plenty of other people do. Jean Gargano, who lives in Island Pond, emailed NEK Broadband in January to let the CUD know that her household would like to be included. Connecting through the provider Xfinity, she said, would cost $20,000.

“There is no way I can afford that,” wrote Gargano, who recently moved to Island Pond. “And it’s not fair that the whole block has this service except for the last three houses.”
The efforts in the Northeast Kingdom are part of a statewide drive to use Vermont’s $245 million share of federal COVID-19 relief money on broadband updates in underserved areas. The Broadband Board, established by Act 71, is giving out grants through Vermont's nine CUDs, which cover 208 Vermont towns.

Hallquist estimates it would take $550 million to connect every Vermont household that doesn’t have broadband; she’s hoping that the CUDs can make up the difference with revenue bonds and other financing.

The broadband board is also applying for some more federal funding that has become available for infrastructure. Carlson counted eight or nine other grants, donations and loans that are also part of the mix.

“It’s a patchwork,” he said.



Of the estimated 39,000 homes and businesses in the Northeast Kingdom that are connected to the electrical grid (and are therefore candidates for a broadband connection), about 44 percent don’t have what the state considers to be an adequate internet connection, said Christa Shute, the executive director of NEK Broadband.

“It’s the worst,” she said. “There are a number of small towns in the NEK that just don’t have service at all. They can do dial-up, but you can’t get anything with dial-up.”

The timeline for completing the work — which is seen as critical to attracting residents to Vermont's rural ares, or keeping them there — is uncertain.

“Statewide, we’re at the first 100 yards of a couple-mile race to get this initiative done,” Carlson said. “There are probably CUDs that are going to begin construction this year, and that’s a really exciting prospect.”
Installing broadband doesn't guarantee everyone can connect; many households can't afford to pay for service. The federal grant programs that are sending millions to the states to shore up internet connectivity require that providers offer low-cost or free service to qualifying households.

In Vermont, Comcast, Charter Communications, and VTEL will offer free service through those programs, said Clay Purvis, director of the telecommunications division at the Vermont Department of Public Service.

Shute noted that many Vermonters, including students, had to work in the parking lots of libraries, diners, or other places with internet when school and work went online during the pandemic. Some still do.

"In the Northeast Kingdom, we have the lowest population density and we also have the lowest per capita income. That results in the  highest percentage of folks who don’t have broadband service," she said. "There are kids who are behind where they should be because of their broadband service. There are opportunities they don't have on a daily basis."

“We have a digital divide in this country, and it’s really an economic divide,” Hallquist said. “The majority of people who don’t have service in Vermont right now are low-income.”