There was a time when access to the internet was a luxury and even a novelty. Those days are long gone. Today, fast, reliable and affordable access to the internet is as much a necessity as electricity. All aspects of our lives are touched by the digital revolution: Children need access to do their homework, businesses require a connection to serve their customers and we all need the internet to stay connected with our friends and family.

Unfortunately, in far too many cases, the rural parts of our state do not have the access to the internet they need. There are at least 34,000 people in Vermont without access to a wired connection capable of 25 mbps download speeds. Another 8,000 people in Vermont don’t have any wired internet providers available where they live. A fast, affordable and reliable connection to the internet allows rural areas to grow economically and helps residents — especially older populations — avoid social isolation and live more productive, independent and healthy lives.

To be specific, affordable and reliable internet service helps older adults age in place productively and safely with access to telemedicine, civic engagement with friends and family, entertainment, online learning and other internet-based applications that provide social interaction and help with health challenges. It also enables people to work from home and avoid a commute or operate a home-based business. As mobility declines, access to these functions from the home is critical.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson has long said that rural broadband expansion is a top priority, and this legislative session the governor, House and Senate have all put forward broadband proposals. The House Energy and Technology Committee’s omnibus telecommunications bill, if signed into law, will be the boldest step Vermont has taken to date on the implementation of broadband services to under- and unserved areas of Vermont. The House omnibus bill would provide communities with the funds to determine the feasibility of local broadband initiatives; would look at how electric companies could provide broadband access using existing electric distribution and transmission infrastructure; and would give unserved communities across the state the ability to seek funds for broadband expansion efforts.

Our legislative leaders and the governor have cited broadband access as a priority and AARP Vermont encourages the Legislature to move these measures forward. Our regulators, advocates and the towns, villages and cities of Vermont are all on board and recognize the benefits of statewide broadband access. We all recognize the social and educational advantages of internet access as well as the significant economic development opportunities for our state. Let’s help Vermonters get connected — it will benefit us all.

Greg Marchildon is state director of AARP Vermont.

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