BRANDON — Vermont’s communication union districts say that getting Vermont caught up in internet speeds will take, first and foremost, more funding.
Several communication union districts spoke to U.S. House Rep. Peter Welch on Wednesday. Welch sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and serves on its Communications and Technology subcommittee, which on Thursday will hear testimony from the Federal Communications Commission on rural broadband access.
“It has to be treated much like electricity was in the 1930s when there was a social decision that was made; a social decision, not an economic decision, that we had to wire and electrify rural America so that it could be a default participant in the life of our country,” said Welch.
He credited the Vermont Department of Public Service for discrediting an FCC claim that all of America had access to broadband internet.
“We smashed that myth that has been used as a point of resistance to acknowledge the severity of the absence of the internet in rural America,” said Welch.
According to Welch, while the nation and Congress are heavily polarized many Republican representatives hail from rural, underserved areas and see the need for better broadband access, offering more hope of reaching a solution here than there might be on another issue.
Nearly every CUD representative on the call said the groups need more money to accomplish their goals.
Tim Scoggins, chairman of the board of directors for the Southern Vermont CUD — soon to rebranded as Catamount Fiber — said his organization has received CARES Act funds for a survey, but could use more to hire staff. He said the CUDs are made up of volunteers and are limited compared to what a full-time, trained, paid staff could accomplish.
Ann Manwaring, chairwoman of the Deerfield Valley CUD, said under current laws, the CUDs have to function more like for-profit companies
“Our ability to succeed will depend only on the revenues we can generate as we build out our systems, and I estimate we’re going to need very substantial amounts of money for the capital investment,” she said.
She expressed frustration as well that the federal funds available for broadband seem to go most easily to commercial entities that aren’t as interested in serving everyone.
Besides money, some CUDs would like to see the definition of high-speed broadband adjusted.
“What it is currently is this almost useless standard of 25/3 which does not satisfy the needs of even one person much less a family with kids in school, or with medical needs,” said Michael Rooney, chairman of the Lamoille FiberNet Communications Union District. “Getting it to 100/100 might be about right for today, it might not be right for tomorrow, but it would be for today.”
One of the newer CUDs is the Otter Creek CUD, which has been working with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission on organizing and securing funding for certain steps in the process.
Bill Moore, chairman of the Otter Creek CUD, said, so far, the towns of Brandon, Pittsford, Hubbardton and Goshen have signed on, with Sudbury expected to do so as well. Moore is also the economic development director for the Town of Brandon. He said if the CUDs can improve broadband access it will help the entire area, not only with local needs like access to schooling and telehealth during the current pandemic, but by making the area more attractive to new residents.