Vermont U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy hosted a roundtable discussion this week with state leaders on broadband and the opportunity to improve access with American Rescue Plan funds.
The Vermont Broadband Roundtable was hosted by Democrat Patrick Leahy, pro-tem of the U.S. Senate and chair of the Appropriations Committee. He was able to include in the American Rescue Plan a so-called “all state minimum” that assures Vermont will get $1.25 billion overall. Within that $113 million is targeted for broadband. Leahy explained that he has also moved legislation to bring additional broadband infrastructure funding to the state.
“Vermont has been stopped from getting funds under the USDA Reconnect Program," Leahy said. "I included a provision in the omnibus that which will reopen that program to Vermont this summer. We can compete for some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in that program.”
Vermont’s top state officials joined the roundtable to discuss plans for the broadband funding including the House and Senate leaders and Republican Governor Phil Scott.
“Broadband is something we’ve all talked about long before the pandemic," Scott said. "And now one of the silver linings of this challenge is that we have a real opportunity to make enormous gains. ARPA gives us the opportunity to provide every unserved and underserved Vermonter high speed internet and insure that broadband is available to all statewide.”
The state has created Communications Union Districts – known as CUDs – to complete last mile distribution of broadband in remote and rural areas. The Northeast Kingdom District comprises the three most rural counties in the state. Chair Evan Carlson says they estimate $100 million in capital expenditures will be required to complete broadband expansion there.
“A couple things to consider as we move forward," Carlson said. "I really think it’s so important for us to ensure that the funding programs provide sufficient time for broadband to be deployed in the right way and ensure it’s a real future-proof solution. We need to consider deep investment into the workforce to be able to support this build out today and support it in the long term. And we should really consider permanent low income subsidies for broadband not just temporary things through the pandemic.”
Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom is an independent locally owned Vermont communications company. After the forum Vice President of Marketing and Business Development Kurt Gruendling told WAMC he feels state legislators may be too focused on the Communications Union Districts.
“The challenge with the current bill that came out of the Vermont Legislature is it’s really giving priority to the CUDs versus the existing service providers and you know we’re in the position where we have all the operational assets in place and the limiting factor right now is certainly capital," Gruendling said. "Things could still change. The bill’s over in the Senate right now and I’m hopeful that they include the small family owned existing service providers like us and allow us to compete for that funding along with the CUDs.”