- Tim Newcomb
Internet service was agonizingly slow when Ed and Elizabeth Childs moved into their rural Corinth home in 2012. Nearly a decade later, it's not much better. The couple pays $75 a month for DSL service over the copper wires of their local telephone company, but it's useless for many modern tasks.
"Any kind of teleconferencing or uploading files is a real problem," Ed said. "To upload video, even in a compressed format, you're talking hours and hours — even days."
So Ed, a retired electrical engineer, did two things. He joined the Space on Main in nearby Bradford, a coworking space where he has the high-speed internet connection he needs to develop a new business venture. And he joined the governing board of the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District, better known as ECFiber.
Formed in 2016, ECFiber was Vermont's first communications union district, a type of municipal entity that is proliferating rapidly as more communities seek to improve internet services. Such districts can build broadband infrastructure themselves or work with private internet providers to expand service.
Childs serves on the board to ensure that someone will advocate for extending to all of Corinth the kind of lightning-fast, fiber-optic internet connections that ECFiber has rolled out to parts of two dozen towns in the Upper Valley.
"I don't see why their success couldn't be replicated across Vermont," Childs said.
Lawmakers agree. They are betting big that these new volunteer-run districts can do exactly that. As Vermont faces a digital divide brought into sharp relief by the pandemic, lawmakers increasingly view local communications districts modeled after ECFiber as the best chance to bring broadband to the 60,000 homes that lack it.
After the state passed a law in 2019 encouraging the formation of the districts, communities responded enthusiastically. Seven more have organized, bringing the total to nine; more than 200 towns now count themselves as members of a communications union district.
This year, there's an effort in Montpelier to designate the largely untested entities as the engines of the state's broadband internet strategy.
The House voted 146-2 last month for a bill, H.360, that would elevate the new districts in two ways. First, it would effectively make the districts the gatekeepers for future state broadband funding by funneling through them $150 million in federal aid for universal coverage. The state would no longer issue grants directly to a patchwork of internet service providers that includes large corporations such as Consolidated Communications and local telephone companies that serve a single town.
The bill would mean that organizations accountable to the public and dedicated to bringing high-speed internet to all the customers in their respective districts would manage the tax dollars meant to solve the problem, instead of for-profit companies with spotty track records on rural internet.
The bill would also create a new state agency, the Vermont Community Broadband Authority, to coordinate and support the work of the districts. The authority effectively would be a revamped version of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, which was mothballed in 2013 after seven years of mixed results. The new authority would provide the local communications districts with financial, technical and administrative support.
Funneling public money through communications districts and creating an agency to support them represent a fundamental shift in how the state is tackling the long-promised goal to make high-speed internet available for all.
"We need a paradigm shift in order to build broadband to the last mile in Vermont," Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) told her colleagues.
The ambitious effort enjoys strong support. Gov. Phil Scott released an infrastructure plan on Tuesday that backed the House's strategy and then some, proposing $225 million in funding over three years, routing much of the aid through communications districts.
But the bill also faces potential obstacles. It has yet to make it past the skeptical Senate Finance Committee. "We've got our work cut out for us," Sen. Anne Cummings (D-Washington) said upon taking a first look at the 47-page bill last week.
Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock (R-Franklin) has introduced a rival bill that would instead focus funding on short-term solutions aimed at helping low-income residents get internet services that already exist.
"All the technology in the world is useless unless it is affordable, particularly to those people at the lower scale of income in Vermont," Brock said this week.
And telecommunications and internet providers that have relied on state grants for years now fear they could be barred from a vital revenue source and forced to compete with government entities backing one particular technology.
The House bill insists that public funds be spent on fiber-optic connections to homes and businesses with speeds of at least 100 megabits per second — 20 times faster than what Ed Childs receives. Telephone, cable television and wireless providers fear their technologies may not measure up.
Requiring fiber at such specific speeds "destroys the notion of being technology neutral and puts government in the position of choosing winners and losers," Timothy Wilkerson, president of the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, wrote to Scott last week.
Local telecommunications companies urged the House Energy and Technology Committee to consider the impact such a shift might have on their businesses.
Tim Nulty is the CEO of Jericho-based startup Mansfield Community Fiber, which has gotten state grants but would be guaranteed nothing should the funds be routed through communications districts. He lambasted the committee for what he said would be a "grossly discriminatory and counterproductive action."
He called the draft bill an "obviously unfair, discriminatory and destructive" one that "could kill our business," as well as that of other small telecoms across the state.
"That our own legislature would cut off this proven, locally grown enterprise at the knees is truly shocking," Nulty wrote in a scathing letter to the committee.
When Nulty, who was involved in the founding of ECFiber and Burlington Telecom, testified about his concerns, lawmakers told him that if he were as big a supporter of communications districts as he professed, he should start figuring out how to work with them instead of undermining them.
Nulty said he'd be happy to do so but that representatives of the ones he's met don't seem up to speed. "They're good people and they're well-intentioned, but they look a bit like deer in the headlights," Nulty said.
Kim Gates, manager of Franklin Telephone, told lawmakers that her small outfit serving about 800 rural residents along the Canadian border is rolling out fiber where possible, but the economics are challenging.
She is losing customers to competitors in some areas and having trouble recouping the costs of upgrading to fiber in others, she said.
"They're happy to have the fiber," she said of potential customers, "but they don't really want to pay for high-bandwidth packages."
Many states are struggling with the core question of whether to push existing internet service providers to serve the last mile in rural areas or to find ways to do it themselves, said Patrick Clemins, a computer science adjunct professor at the University of Vermont and a cyber-infrastructure expert.
States with Republican-controlled legislatures tend to favor the free-market approach; Democrats tend to favor frameworks that allow municipalities and nonprofits greater control over their networks, he said.
With vast amounts of federal money on the horizon for broadband investments, many states are scrambling to figure out how to spend the funds most effectively. The idea of routing it all through grassroots organizations is not unique to Vermont, but the state seems further along than others.
"We're seeing an opportunity, and Vermont, because of its ability to act quickly and be nimble, has been able to put its framework into place earlier than others," Clemins said.
One of the hurdles the bill would need to overcome is to distinguish the new broadband authority from the defunct Vermont Telecommunications Authority, which didn't live up to all of its promises. That authority was formed in 2007 to advance broadband and wireless communications infrastructure. Soon afterward, the Great Recession hit. By 2011, despite an annual operating budget of $900,000 and $8.9 million appropriated by lawmakers for capital projects, the authority had only completed projects worth $280,000, the legislature found.
The authority went dormant in 2013, and some of its roles were transferred to the Department of Public Service.
Some may be hesitant to reestablish an authority with a similar mission, but a state-level coordinating role would be crucial to communications union districts' success, said Evan Carlson, chair of NEK Community Broadband, which is trying to improve connectivity in one of the most underserved parts of the state.
The districts popping up around the state will need to do some air traffic control to help them work together while keeping an eye on federal and state telecommunications policy in a way volunteer boards can't, Carlson said.
F.X. Flinn, chair of the ECFiber board, agreed that the coordinating role of the Vermont Community Broadband Authority board would be crucial. He likened it to the independent groups that gather at base camps before attempting to scale Mount Everest but find themselves needing to work together.
"If they don't attack the routes in a coordinated fashion, it creates problems," Flinn said.
Christine Hallquist has been thinking strategically about utilities for years, both as the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Coop and as a 2018 candidate for governor.
"We've tried to treat high-speed internet as a competitive business instead of treating it as infrastructure," Hallquist said.
Now the administrator for NEK Community Broadband, Hallquist said internet access has become as essential to modern life as electricity was in the 1930s, when the Rural Electrification Act was adopted to string power lines to rural areas passed over by for-profit power companies.
She views the volunteers now stepping forward to form communications districts as akin to the pioneers who formed the states' original electric cooperatives. There will be huge challenges, including coordinating with utilities to get poles ready for fiber, building a workforce to get the work done and making the service affordable.
The federal funding nevertheless represents a once-in-a-lifetime shot at building the kind of robust networks that can help small businesses and "high intellectual capital" businesses thrive outside urban centers, she said.
"It really is a decision about our future," Hallquist said. "We either become a total economic backwater or we do this and regain our competitive edge."