With the pandemic bringing school and workplaces into the home for many people, gaps in high-speed internet are presenting new challenges.
This week, Vermont Congressman Peter Welch, a member of the House Rural Broadband Task Force, held a virtual roundtable with broadband providers in Vermont to discuss what federal support is needed.
Vermont’s at-large Representative joined 10 House Democrats in late April to announce the House Democratic Plan to Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet. It would invest $80 billion over five years to expand internet access to underserved and rural communities and offer financing to providers that deploy broadband to those areas. It also provides over $1 billion to create an annual grant program for states to close gaps in broadband accessibility.
During a virtual conversation with Vermont providers, Congressman Welch said the pandemic has proven that high-speed broadband is a necessary component of the nation’s infrastructure. “The need to have this high speed internet and the absence of it, and the social impact of not having it is just brutally real. We’ve got to get high speed internet that is future proofed to rural America.
Providers discussed short-term challenges in the wake of the pandemic and long-term challenges to bring broadband to rural Vermont. Commercial and community providers, utilities and contractors weighed in. Duncan Cable provides services in Wilmington and Dover. Owner Cliff Duncan reported an increase in demand during the pandemic. “Our short term needs in trying to meet the immediate demands of everyone staying at home and some of our second homeowners have decided to flee the asphalt jungle, if you will, and come to be in Vermont. That strains a lot of broadband networks ours included. The long term needs, the national efforts to wire rural America has been the most difficult and challenging. I’m not sitting here with the luxury of an attorney or an accountant…” (Welch: “Luxury.”) “…Yeah. To go into that process and engage myself for days on end. I just don’t have that time. I hope that we can create a process that is indicative of the concerns and the needs of the small operator to be able to apply and have a fair playing field.”
Consolidated Communications Legislative Director Jeff Austin said affordability of broadband must be considered. “You can build the things all day but if a customer who needs it can’t afford it then that’s certainly something that we also think needs to be addressed.”
Franklin Telephone serves part of northern Vermont. Manager Kimberly Gates says while the focus has been on high-speed internet, it is also crucial to make all forms of communication available. “I worry sometimes we get so worried about broadband we forget the commitment to have everybody have telephone service. You know we operate in rural areas but it’s expensive to build to and it’s expensive to maintain, it’s ongoing. It’s not a one time you build it and you’re done. There’s maintenance involved too.”
Kingdom Fiber CEO Michael Birnbaum said providers should remain open-minded about what types of technologies should and could be used to reach rural customers. “I’m all for fiber but I think it’s really important to keep in mind that there’s a place for other technologies. And so the funding should be technology agnostic and then up to the localities to determine if they’re willing to take on the responsibility to do that.”
Congressman Welch: “If some new technology comes along I don’t want us to have to go through this again. I want us to be future proof, is the term that we’re using.”