Vermont will fund homegrown internet service providers under a broadband expansion bill signed last week by Gov. Phil Scott. The move makes Vermont the latest in a series of states that, underwhelmed by the federal government’s solutions to provide internet access, have taken matters into their own hands.
The new law establishes a broadband innovation grant program to kickstart and fund local providers, inspired by the success of ECFiber, an ISP that serves east-central Vermont.
Improving high-speed internet access is a top priority for the rural state, which is fighting the flight of its young people and wants to attract new business. Twenty-seven percent of Vermont lacks access to high-speed internet, which is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a connection having a download speed of 25 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. Seven percent of Vermont state residents, meanwhile, lack a connection meeting a much lower standard of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps, according to the state’s Department of Public Service.
“We have been waiting for the private sector to serve us, and it hasn’t come,” Clay Purvis, the director for telecommunications at the Vermont Department of Public Service, told StateScoop. “And we’ve waited for the federal government to bring us internet service, and it hasn’t come. We’ve come to the realization that no one is going to do this for us, and we have to do it ourselves.”
Purvis said connecting the areas of the state with the most limited connectivity was the top priority of the bill signed into law on June 20.
“We wouldn’t be very tolerant of 7 percent of our state not having electricity,” he said.
Vermont has pivoted to community-based solutions for improving internet access, state officials say, because many large telecommunications often neglect coverage in its most rural areas. Arkansas, Indiana and Oregon have taken similar steps.
Purvis recalled that when a group of volunteers in 2008 first proposed the creation of a nonprofit providing broadband service to some of Vermont’s most rural towns, no one thought the plan would work.
“They had no resources available to them,” he said.
But ECFiber pieced together funds from local investors to get started. Now, the organization is considered a municipal body, serving 24 towns and financed by revenue bonds.
“It really is a community-based, local, rural, fiber-to-the-home process,” said Chris Recchia, the managing director of ValleyNet, ECFiber’s operations provider.
Vermont’s new law will also increase funding for the state’s Connectivity Initiative, which helps internet service providers expand to more rural areas, and offers resources for towns to evaluate whether investing in broadband is feasible. The increased efforts for broadband give rural towns a real glimpse of hope, Purvis said.
“What we’ve been hearing from many communities is that they see this as a connection to the outside world. They see it as an economic and a public health lifeline,” he said.
This story was updated after publication to clarify the type of internet connection available to 7 percent of Vermont residents.