The event kicked off with comments from Rep. Laura Sibilia and Sen. Brian Campion, of Bennington. Sibilia urged attendees to be proactive in the pursuit of high-speed access.
“I’m going to be really blunt and say if you don’t have connectivity or the speeds you want in your community right now in rural southern Vermont, the odds are pretty good that that’s not going to change unless you do something,” said Sibilia.
Campion thanked Sibilia for her efforts toward addressing connectivity issues in the region, noting that access to high-speed internet is not only an issue of economic development but also equity.
Equity was a theme echoed by Megan Sullivan, business liaison for Welch. “The 1996 Telecommunication Act states that rural customers should have the same or comparable prices and resources to urban counterparts,” said Sullivan. “I don’t think anybody can say with a straight face that has come to fruition.”
Sullivan said Welch was one of the founding members of the bipartisan Rural Broadband Caucus. “The congressman recognizes that rural issues are different than urban issues when it comes to telecommunications,” said Sullivan. “We need to make sure rural priorities are being addressed in any bills and regulations coming down the line.”
Sullivan noted that high-speed internet could vastly expand equity in rural parts of the state, highlighting its potential uses in the medical field. “Our hospitals have internet connections, but I think there is opportunity for people who don’t have the chance to go to a hospital every day to use telemedicine from home,” said Sullivan, noting that aging rural populations in the state often cannot get to a hospital for routine tests.
Chris Saunders, legislative assistant to Leahy, echoed Sibilia’s call to action in her opening statements. “(Event organizer) Sarah (Lang) billed this event to me as ‘Help is not on the way,’” said Saunders, noting that his office wishes legislators on the other side of the aisle would take up the cause of expanding high-speed access in rural areas. “Senator Leahy and his colleagues are ready to go,” said Saunders.
Erica Campbell, a member of the policy and outreach staff for agriculture, food, rural development, and transportation for Sanders, said that although connectivity is not her area of expertise, she has seen firsthand how a lack of access to high-speed internet affects rural Vermonters.
“I’ve seen the incredible disadvantage farmers have if they don’t have access,” said Campbell. “It’s also so important for education, health care, business, and economic development.”
Carol Monroe, of ECFiber, a “community owned, subscriber financed” fiber-optic network in east-central Vermont, spoke about how the network, which provides fiber access to 24 towns and is expanding, came to fruition, noting that a key requirement for action is a group of people who are willing to take charge.
“Unless you have people who are really angry about it and are ready to take control, nothing is ever going to happen,” said Monroe.
She said the success of ECFiber is rooted in its viability as a business. ECFiber was initially financed by a group of 450 investors who raised $7 million. “To date, all of our investors have been paid back,” said Monroe.
Omar Smith, of Readsboro, spoke about the Readsboro Broadband and Cell Committee, which was formed after encouragement from Sibilia in 2016. Smith said that when the committee comprising “average citizens” formed, its members reviewed grant maps and saw that much of the area was projected to have service.
“But when we started talking to providers, we found there were no projects in progress and there were no plans,” said Smith.
The committee, which Smith said reports to the selectboard, distributed a survey at Town Meeting to gather data about residents’ firsthand experiences with connectivity. “We learned that many people had no option other than dial-up or satellite,” said Smith.
Since then, the committee has been proactive in meeting with providers and officials in surrounding towns. “At every meeting we learned something new,” said Smith, noting that it was particularly illuminating for the group to meet the Vermont Broadband Cooperative, a Stamford-based group that created a cooperative network inside Stamford. The cooperative is staffed by volunteers and has been active since 2005.
Steve Neratko, economic development director in Dover, spoke about Dover’s efforts to bring fiber to premises in the town. “In 2016, the town put out an RFP to look into potential projects that would cover fiber to premises,” said Neratko. “The town got one RFP back from FairPoint. It would be a $4 million to $5 million project that the town would have to fund.
“One of the biggest hurdles is that the town does not want to run its own ISP. They would like to have someone else operate it. But there are a variety of concerns that right now don’t allow us to make those $5 million worth of improvements for a private company, and we don’t want to run ISP ourselves.”
Neratko said the town is weighing its options in terms of what to do about the ISP, and is looking into financing options. “We’re working with our lawyers to figure out what the town is able to pay for utilizing 1% funding,” said Neratko. “Only $2.5 million of the $4 million to $5 million is for fiber itself. The other funds are for poles and other equipment, and we’re not able to pay for that using bond money to improve the conditions of a private entity.”
Neratko said though the details are not yet settled, the town is ready to move forward and hopes to work with FairPoint to make the project a reality.