Roper: Auditor’s Report: Just how bad our lawmakers screwed up the broadband buildout.

by Rob Roper

The headlines two years ago read, “Lawmakers skeptical of Starlink solution for broadband problems.” This was when hundreds of millions of dollars began pouring into Vermont to deal with the pandemic and we were seeing all sorts of stories about kids forced to attend school remotely from homes that didn’t have adequate or any internet service, especially in rural areas of our state. It all highlighted the idea that internet access today, like electricity before it, has become a necessity, not a luxury, in our modern society.

Starlink is the low earth orbit satellite-based high speed internet alternative to cable. All one needs to gain access to the service is a satellite dish, which the purchaser can set up on their own with no training required. In 2021, the start-up equipment cost $499 and the monthly service charge was $99. (Today, with inflation, it’s $599 and $110), which means that for less than $100 million, we could have fully paid for 50,000 rural, low-income Vermont households to get Starlink high-speed internet access installed, and their service fully subsidized for five years, just as soon as the dishes could be shipped and delivered.

The attitude of most legislators regarding Starlink at the time are well summed up by this quote from Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), “I have less than zero interest in facilitating or seeing the state facilitate that.” (VTDigger, 3/7/21)

Instead, Sibilia and her colleagues opted to go with their own complicated plan to install cable to “the last mile” of every dirt road in the state. As was noted at the time, such hook ups can routinely cost as much as $20,000 per household, and that does not include the in-home equipment and monthly service charge. It would also take years to complete. This government-run plan was to be executed by multiple state and regional bureaucracies comprised of a Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB), and ten (so far) Communications Union Districts (CUDs), which represent over 250 separate municipalities.  

What could go wrong?

Well, the State Auditor, Doug Hoffer, just released a twelve-page report about how the cable broadband expansion effort is going two years and over $150 million into what is anticipated to be a $600-800 million project. It’s about what you would expect from a massively bureaucratic, multi-layered government system with a myriad of players all chasing their piece of the money pie.

Hoffer and his office lay out ten potential risk areas contributing to this mess.

Risk 1, according to the report, is a potential lack of funding in 2024. Given the fact that we have already spent the bulk of $150 million setting up these CUDs and are expecting multiple hundreds of millions more in federal funding from things like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment (BEAD) program, this seems pretty shocking.

Risks 2 & 3 are the same realities all other aspects of our economy are dealing with as well: supply chain issues limiting access to necessary construction materials and an acute shortage trained labor necessary to do the work. So, even if the money does materialize, there is a strong likelihood that many rural Vermonters still won’t get access to high-speed internet any time soon due to lack of labor and materiel.

Risk 4 the Auditor describes as, “The Tension Between the VCBB Supporting the CUDs and Ensuring They are Viable Risks Allowing Any Weaknesses in CUD Business Plans to Persist and Deepen.” And Risk 5, the “Reliance Upon CUDs with Varying Levels of Expertise and Capacity May Delay Broadband Service to Some Vermonters, Lead to Increased Spending, and Establish Inequitable Policies and Access.” This seems like a polite way of saying the players here are in many cases incompetent and ill equipped to do this job.

And here the report also notes, “While the VCBB’s 2023 Legislative Report indicates that existing grant agreements address methods to support low-income and disadvantaged communities, we have not found any such language in the agreements.” A cautionary tale for anyone who hears stories from politicians about how such-and-such policy is going to prioritize helping the poor and most vulnerable. Not so much, after all.

Risk 6. “With the Exception of the Early VCBB Fiber Purchase, CUDs Have Not Been Partnering for Procurement of Goods and Services, Risking Higher Costs and Inferior Outcomes.” Again, the project is not being competently managed.

Risk 7. “Statutory Confidentiality Provisions Shield Some CUD Decision-making from the VCBB, Policymakers and Residents of the Member Municipalities Despite Receiving Tens of Millions in Public Funds.” So, the actions and spending decisions of these decidedly incompetent regional organizations is neither transparent to the public or the board tasked with overseeing their activity. Well, that doesn’t sound optimal, does it? The report cites instances of contract provisions that are not being made available for public inspection as including: “Proposed pricing plans, Requirements around public access programming and other content, and Service quality expectations.” Yup, those are all things we should probably know about.

Risk 8. The program is supposed to help low-income Vermonters afford high-speed internet, but never defines what “affordable” means. Or, “Lack of Affordability Definitions and Requirements Threaten to Reduce Service Connections, Undermine CUD Business Plans, and Create Regional Inequities.” This is what we’re paying for, folks.   

Risk 9. The program has and is open to conflicts of interest. “The Firm the VCBB Employs to Evaluate CUD Business Plans Has Also Consulted for a CUD and Does Not Appear to be Prohibited from Consulting for Others, Raising Conflict of Interest Risks.” Stir this in with the risks of mismanagement and lack of transparency, and oh what fun we can have!

And Risk 10. The way the state set them up, the CUDs may not qualify for federal BEAD funding. Whoops.

Now, full disclosure, my household got high speed cable internet service about eighteen months ago. It only took twenty years and over a dozen neighbors kicking in a few thousand bucks each to convince the cable company to run a line the mile and a half we are from the center of town. It works great. But if in 1999 when we moved in here a Starlink option were available on day one – as opposed to option B of waiting decades for cable — we almost certainly would have gone with Option A.

For low income and rural Vermonters who need help accessing high-speed internet now, your politicians chose Option B for you. Enjoy the wait. And for all you taxpayers out there, sleep well knowing that they chose the most expensive, least efficient option available — that you get to pay for! 

Back in 2021, then Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte) justified this historically bad decision, saying, “We think this technology is too young for us to actually consider it as a viable solution in Vermont.” Well, given that less than a year later when Russia invaded Ukraine, bombing that country’s infrastructure to rubble, the folks at Starlink basically flipped a switch and provided the Ukrainians with instant, nationwide high-speed internet service. So, Mike, et al…. you thought wrong.

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Categories: Commentary

12 replies »

  1. Wow. Not surprised! This should be a clear indicator that the people, especially those most vulnerable to such bills, do not matter. S.5 will be catastrophic if that piece of used toilet paper passes.

  2. Back in the day… quite a while ago in fact… in 1995, a company called Sovernet was Vermont’s first private internet supplier. They capitalized with about $100 thousand, started small, and became Vermont’s largest privately held telco company operating state-wide. They are known today as First Light.

    When Sovernet started, the State, in its wisdom, decided to provide government sourced internet service. It was known back then as The State capitalized with about $10 Million… and, you guessed it, couldn’t compete.

    The irony is that the State took tax dollars from private businesses like Sovernet and competed with them using the private business’s money. And the State still couldn’t compete.

    Today we have OneCare, which is now under the control of UVM Medical Center. Need I say more.

    We have a K-12 public education monopoly that charges more to educate a first grader than it costs to send a student to Castleton State for a year of undergraduate studies, including room and board. And for that, 60% of high school graduates can’t meet minimum reading, writing, math and science standards.

    And today we have an $8.4 billion State budget equaling almost $13,000 in spending for every living Vermonter, while our neighbor, New Hampshire, has a budget equaling less than $5000 per capita. And while Vermont ranks 3rd in highest taxed states, NH ranks 34th. And still, “New Hampshire is consistently safer, has a higher standard of living, lower welfare and poverty rates, and has better health outcomes.”

    But hey, since when did common sense have a place in Montpelier?

  3. The argument from the demoprogs who are somehow no-doubt benefiting from this larges is that we are already into the fiber plan and we can’t back out now. These leftists all hate Elon Musk with a passion (even though he is an immigrant from Africa), and will do anything to avoid putting money into his pocket, even if it makes the most sense for the taxpayers and end users of the system. The left destroys everything it touches. Thank goodness we there is one decent progressive elected official who does his job objectively and thoroughly…our Auditor, Doug Hoffer. Meanwhile our health care, border policies, law enforcement, land use regulation and opioid problem are also being handled by demoprogs, and with similar outcomes.

  4. This is sounding like the debacle in Burlington a while back with the progressive mayor Kiss completely mismanaging the fiber optic build-out, putting the city’s bond rating in the mud…

  5. I rang this bell multiple times. Millions upon millions of dollars earmarked starting with Governor Douglas. Where did all the money go? Was there money to begin with? The Kingdom Con, the Broadband Con, the Green Energy Con, the Equity/Inclusion Con the Mail-in Ballot Con…etc etc. Vermont is a cesspool of corruption and a grifter’s paradise.

  6. Rob, you should run for office.

    Let’s say you do have internet access or you’re about to get it. Now you’re going to have to pay a minimum of $1200 per year, FOREVER, to keep that service. Think about that. Over the next 30 years, you’ll have to spend $36000 just on internet access. Hint: The cost ain’t gonna go down!

    On the other hand, what could low-income Vermonters do with $1200 per year? Buy food? Clothing for their children? Heat their residences? Pay rent?

    Instead of forgiving student loans, why can’t we help out these people with free internet? For that matter, why can’t there be “means-test pricing”?

    Come on now, what we need are folks who can think out of the box, or at least think independently of what their masters tell them to think. Not everyone can lead, but everyone sure can follow.

    And have you seen the profit a company like Comcast makes? It’s billions and billions every year. You’d think they could front a couple hundred mil for those among us who don’t have any disposable money. You know, the ones who have to choose between oil for heat and food to eat every day? The ones who, frankly and to a large extent, keep Vermont moving?

    I’m far from a socialist, but I do believe that if you have the ability, you should help raise up those who can’t do it all themselves.

    • Are you classifying broadband internet in the ever-expanding cornucopia of “human rights”? It is fiscally unsustainable to force the taxpayers to means-test everything or give it away for free. Where does it end? Food and shelter are understandable, essential benefits, but a service which many people use simply for entertainment, gaming and porn is NOT. If you feel you really need it, then PAY FOR IT.

  7. And once again, as with S.5, the real question is the measure of the “opportunity costs” (what could have been the highest value alternative use of the money wasted) where no measurable gain or accomplishment results from the tax forgiveness, subsidy or budget produces anything. What could you and I or the government done worthwhile with that money or reduced costs?

  8. Hi Rob,

    Just a quick note to remind you that Elon Musk’s Star Link, despite receiving 100’s of millions of dollars in public tax payer dollars, refused to testify publicly on the Vermont broadband effort.

    In addition to not including their intermittent and experimental technology in our bill, I took the extra step of asking our federal delegation if they thought it was acceptable for American taxpayers dollars to subsidize a private entity that refused to publicly testify about the service those federal tax dollars was reportedly providing.

    Laura Sibilia

  9. Why is this a surprise to anyone??

    The government literally never successfully completes any project and even if they complete it, it’s certainly not done economically. In fact, it’s the exact opposite every single time. Bloated, mismanaged, not on schedule, often has to be redone, and always has unintended economic consequences.

    But hey opt for more government services that should help.

    If only the leftists and progressives would do something for themselves, instead of asking the government to do it for them, we might actually get somewhere. Since they seem to be the majority of the vote, the government gets the contract every time and the taxpayer gets screwed every time. Round and round we go (I’m picturing a toilet being flushed).

    Also, Rob should run for office, I’d vote for him!

  10. The CUD districts are NOT putting in new poles either. There are three main possible connectors , approximately 1-2 miles each , in my town that could be made with new poles, but nope. No electricity, no poles, no Internet. Star link will be my only option when our house is finished, though its only a half mile to the current utility poles. We don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to get poles put in for that half mile. Being off the grid is probably the best option anyway the way VT is headed.