The cost of materials and availability of labor could pose challenges to Vermont’s plans to expand its broadband infrastructure, but leaders say the state is ready.
Gov. Phil Scott was among several state and Congressional leaders speaking at a remote broadband round-table discussion hosted Wednesday by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. They talked about the $113 million in funds Vermont will receive for broadband improvement through the American Rescue Plan, a federal funding package aimed at helping the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Scott, who outside his government career has a background in the construction industry, said he’s noticed the price of building materials has been rising dramatically, “and I’m wondering about fiber right now, and some of the conduits that’s needed, and some of the operations. Is that becoming a problem as far as availability?”
He asked this of Kurt Gruendling, vice president of marketing and business development for Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom.
“Yes, the availability of fiber is becoming more and more of a problem,” said Gruendling. “We’ve ordered a lot of cable in the past year to try to keep up with future projects and future demands.”
Prices have risen on electronic components as well. Gruendling said it’s likely because of coronavirus related delays such as plants shutting down, disrupting supply chains, but the rise in demand as well.
Gruendling said he’s concerned that during the next 5 years getting needed materials may be difficult, what with all the federal and state funding programs for infrastructure.
“We’re fortunate to have really good vendor relationships that go back many decades and we’ve been able to work around those challenges, but it hasn’t been easy, and I think it’s going to get harder,” he said.
Solid planning so these roll outs can happen sooner will be key, according to NEK Community Broadband Chairman Evan Carlson.
“We had heard, anecdotally, the same things about challenges with materials and fiber supply lines, especially last year with the super-tight deadline, so I think the sooner we can get planning in order, anticipating the accelerated build outs over the next couple of years, the better,” he said.
Much of the CARES Act funding from 2020 had to be spent by the end of the year, causing many to hastily work through permitting processes, if they had time at all.
State House Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, who leads the House Committee on Energy and Technology, noted that Vermont might also be competing, regionally and nationally, for line workers and others who’d be involved in the broadband roll outs.
Scott agreed, though he added that workforce challenges were an issue for Vermont even before the pandemic, and not just in the communications sector.
“This is going to be challenging, but I think we’re up for it,” he said. “We have the safest, healthiest state in the country and we’ve seen where the real estate market is currently. It’s probably a very hot market because of what we’ve done with the pandemic, and we just have to take advantage of that and try and attract more people to the state.”