The Vermont House of Representatives approved a bill nearly unanimously Tuesday that would expand broadband internet across the state through “community-empowering” state-funded grants and loans totaling $10.8 million.
The bill, which passed by a vote of 139 to 2, is an attempt to ensure every Vermonter has internet that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum broadband standard of download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. Currently, the state ranks 29th in connectivity, according to Broadband Now, a website that rates internet service providers, with 27 percent of the state lacking access that meets the the FCC’s standard.
The bill aims to support community-led broadband expansion efforts in Vermont like ECFiber, a nonprofit provider that works across small towns in the eastern part of the state. The legislature is using ECFiber and similar programs as models for small towns that large providers haven’t expanded to or lack competition. The bill, as a result, prioritizes the localities with the slowest speeds — below 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload — and establishes a number of grant and low-interest loan programs that would alleviate the need for local providers to seek capital investment to expand service.
“In looking at model that worked around the state, what our committee did was essentially put together a bill that would empower communities,” Tim Briglin, the chairman of the Vermont House Energy and Technology Committee, said during a briefing. “It would put the ability of the state to better help communities to solve their broadband issue both in the form of funding, in the form of planning, and essentially in the form of advice.”
The measure is the latest in a growing trend across the country to enact state-led broadband expansion. Officials in Tennessee, Indiana, Oregon and elsewhere are weighing different strategies to increase the internet speeds of the outer reaches of the states. The reason, lawmakers say, is that large telecom providers have consistently failed to expand service to the rural areas that need it most — something Vermont state employees have already proven to the FCC.
Vermont’s rules around pole attachment would also be revamped by the bill, implementing a “one-touch” policy around utility poles that would make it easier for local providers to build out their infrastructure, according to Zach Tomanelli, a spokesman for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
“VPIRG believes jumpstarting community-owned broadband efforts is the key to addressing Vermont’s connectivity issues and we’re hopeful that the reforms contained in H.513 will do that,” Tomanelli said in a press release. “Because they don’t need to satisfy shareholders, community-owned networks are better able to provide universal service — reaching the houses that aren’t profitable.”
The broadband expansion bill is expected to go to the state Senate finance committee next.