by Eleanor Lowen, Community News Service
Vermont lawmakers plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on broadband internet access expansion, much of it federal Covid relief money. This is part of a decades-long struggle to bring internet access to rural Vermonters.
While the vast majority of Vermonters have broadband internet access, some living in rural areas still do not. This is especially true in the Northeast Kingdom.
Some of the more rural areas could have to wait six to ten years to get broadband, said Rep. Mark Higley (R-Lowell). That’s why funding for broadband is a priority.
“There’s going to be hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be available for projects to get fiber out to underserved and unserved areas,” said Higley.
Some of this money may flow through Communications Union Districts. Higley was on the House energy and technology committee when Vermont created them. The districts allow towns to work together to negotiate contracts with internet providers, who will likely be more enthusiastic about working on larger contracts, resulting in better deals for the towns.
Some of the money will go to individual towns. Additionally, $100 million of federal money may go to the Vermont Community Broadband Board’s construction grant program. Communications Union Districts and other entities will be able to use this money to help with broadband access expansion.
Broadband expansion is moving slowly partially because there are only a limited number of people who know how to install the fiber optics necessary for an internet connection. These workers are in high demand across the country, Higley said.
According to the Fiber Broadband Association, fiber installation companies across the country are facing severe worker shortages. Workers need specific technical skills to install fiber, and the country’s demand for high-speed internet continues to rise.
Funding is another important issue, but right now there is plenty of money. Vermont is spending federal Covid stimulus money on a number of infrastructure projects, including broadband.
“There’s just so much out there that this money is going towards,” said Higley.