MONTPELIER — A program offering $3,000 to Vermonters to get high-speed broadband lines run to their homes will only reach those living close to existing lines.
We do have applications coming in, people seem very excited about it,” said Clay Purvis, director of the telecommunications and connectivity division at the Department of Public Service.
About 30 people have applied so far, he said.
The Line Extension Customer Assistance Program was created by the Legislature several weeks ago with the passing of Act 137 and has $2 million in it from the federal CARES Act, passed by Congress to alleviate the economic and social damage caused by efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
CARES Act funds come with deadlines, however, which may pose a problem.
“The biggest barrier we’re going to face is the deadline for using coronavirus relief funding,” said Purvis. “This money has to be expended, lines have to be in service by Dec. 30, 2020, and when you’re talking about broadband expansion projects that is an incredibly unrealistic deadline.”
There are several efforts underway to expand and improve broadband in Vermont. Some, like the push to create communications union districts, were underway before the pandemic. Purvis said requests for proposals are being sought for plans that will serve hundreds of homes across larger areas, but this program is aimed at extending existing networks a bit farther.
“The current people we’re trying to reach are people who are near-net,” he said. “To us, near-net means you’re a quarter of a mile away from the end of the line, you’re a couple of pole spaces from the end of the line, you’re close but not close enough that you can get service.”
Visit bit.ly/0731LECAP to find application documents. Those interested can also call the Department of Public Service at 800-622-4496.
According to the department’s website, to qualify, one must show they have some COVID-19 related need, such as having to work or learn remotely, access telehealth services, not have access to 25/3 broadband internet, and be near an existing broadband line. The $3,000 credit is applied to the customers portion of the cost.
Purvis said people need to remember their first step is getting a quote from a provider.
“This is for folks who probably won’t see a large-scale broadband project come to their neighborhood,” he said. “It’s really going to be beneficial to people living next to existing cable networks, people who got left out.”
How beneficial and to whom remains to be seen, according to Carrie Stahler, director of community engagement at Green Mountain United Way, which serves Washington County and parts of Orange County.
Stahler said as far back as April, United Way and several other human services organizations worked together to identify what people’s connectivity needs were. Those who found it especially challenging were people with young children who weren’t yet in school and thus didn’t have access to many resources others did.
Stahler said they found three categories of people, those who had no internet options because of where they lived, people who had access but couldn’t afford it, and people who couldn’t afford devices.
House Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-West Dover, is vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Energy and Technology, which took part in crafting LECAP. She said everything the committee did was done with federal deadlines in mind and the Legislature itself had consultants checking if the proposals being put forward would be feasible.
“This program is really about existing service providers in Vermont extending the lines they have, it’s not about having to engineer a new network or do pole surveys or other things that would come with a new network build,” she said.
She said many providers expressed a willingness to help during the pandemic.
“This program is working with our existing providers who quite frankly have not found it profitable enough to cover rural and poor Vermont,” she said.