If we want a Vermont that works for everyone in every part of the state, we need to do better getting high-speed internet access to every corner of the state. It wasn’t so long ago that access to high-speed internet service was considered a convenience, even an extravagance. No more. Today, access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet service is a prerequisite for participating in modern society.

In the late-1990s, the federal government’s push to deregulate the telecom industry left rural America on the wrong side of the digital divide. Unlike the traditional landline telephone service required for every address, internet service was cordoned off from regulation. The market-based solution we were promised brought high-speed fiber connectivity to densely populated cities and suburbs, but left small towns in the dust.

Vermont’s telecommunications plan calls for 100% of the state to have access to the fastest internet service by 2024 — essentially fiber to every home. Today, only 13% of Vermonters connect at these speeds. Roughly 17,000 Vermont households lack access to even the most basic internet service, while another 50,000 homes do without internet speeds that allow them to work on 21st-century tasks. That’s about one-quarter of all the homes in Vermont. It won’t surprise you that many of these households are in the most rural parts of Vermont, the areas most in need of tools to promote economic growth.

While our last three governors have promised universal broadband connectivity, this year the Vermont Legislature led the effort to pass the boldest, most innovative policy yet to get high-speed internet service to the farthest corners of our state. With Vermont lacking the $500+ million in public funds required to roll broadband fiber to every underserved community in the state, we are supporting and empowering local communities to build their own connectivity solutions. This legislation acknowledges the flexibility different communities will require to solve this issue. While fiber to the premises provides the fastest connections, some towns may find that wireless connectivity is the most viable solution. Some areas may pursue a municipally owned utility model, while others will find public-private partnerships work best.

We are providing communities with resources to plan their own broadband initiatives, while designing financing programs that will support getting these local initiatives off the ground. We are exploring paths that would allow electric utilities to provide internet service using existing infrastructure. And we are removing regulatory impediments that prevent internet service providers from more quickly pushing high-speed access to our most rural communities.

Access to high-speed internet service and fiber connectivity is not only a foundational tool supporting rural economies, it supports real estate values, allows aging Vermonters a path to age in place and access telemedicine, and reduces the need for rural residents to commute long distances. High-speed internet access allows students to actually do their homework at home. It is the most fundamental element for stemming youth out-migration and attracting young professionals to our state. Without high-speed internet, rural economies wither, young people stampede for the exits, and older Vermonters are precluded from living healthy, independent lives.

When this legislation becomes law, we will take an important step to getting more fiber in Vermont’s connectivity diet. By leveraging the success stories of grass-roots broadband initiatives around Vermont, we will empower rural communities to thrive.

Tim Briglin is a Democratic state representative from Thetford Center and the chairman of the House Energy & Technology Committee.

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