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Vermont Aims for Universal High-Speed Internet Access in 5 Years

Regional communications districts plan to start construction next summer

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The push is on to connect all homes and businesses in Vermont to high-speed broadband after years of frustration over slow -- or no -- internet service in many places.

The pandemic brought Vermont's digital divide into sharper focus, when children needed to do schoolwork remotely, when patients needed access to telemedicine and when people struggled to set up home offices after COVID-19 prevention measures kept them from their traditional workplaces.

"I live in a communications dead zone," lamented Sean Kio of Enosburgh, who heads the Northwest Communications Union District, which is working to expand broadband service to member towns in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.

A high schooler in Barre, Vermont says her home internet service is so bad, she must go to a McDonald’s parking lot in order to do her remote learning.

Kio said he knows firsthand the frustrations of slow dial-up internet.

"I couldn't telework or remote work, because my internet connection at home really couldn't support it," Kio said. "I would have to drive hard drives back and forth to Burlington with work because I could not send files. It created a problem."

Soon, nine regional districts should be taking significant steps toward fixing that kind of problem.

"Our goal is to start construction -- and we will start construction -- next summer," said Christine Hallquist, who leads the Vermont Community Broadband Board.

On Monday, the board awarded nearly $10 million in pre-construction grants to regional districts that are currently planning how to build out high-speed service to every last property on every last dirt road.

The strategy behind establishing regional communications districts was to allow communities who know their unique local features and challenges to efficiently achieve their goals, Hallquist explained.

Tens of thousands of addresses here are considered underserved or even unserved, but Vermont's large pot of federal pandemic recovery money -- with more expected from the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress -- has funds set aside for closing the state's digital divide.

Katie Greer helped develop one of the first Internet safety programs in the country. She is writing her dissertation on the topic and works with law enforcement. So, Mom2Mom's Maria Sansone thought there was no one better to sit down with to ask questions about how parents can feel safer about kids and the Internet in the ever-changing digital landscape. Brought to you by Hood Sour Cream.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, and the Democrat-led Vermont Legislature both see making high-speed internet access as key to long-term economic growth.

"We know people want to come here," Scott said. "They want to enjoy everything Vermont has to offer. But without good broadband or enough housing, we can't compete."

CVFiber, the district working on getting universal high-speed service to communities in central Vermont, received a $2.8 million pre-construction grant, Hallquist announced.

"Without this grant, the process would probably take 10 years," said Jeremy Hansen of CVFiber.

Hallquist said by deploying federal funding, the target now is to get 100% of Vermont homes and businesses access to high-speed service in five years.

Hansen said he often hears from real estate agents about listings where there's disappointing web connections.

"I know it's kept people away," Hansen noted. "I've heard from people that have asked us, 'Is there service here?' And I tell them, 'Not really at the moment.' They say, 'Okay, thanks,' and we never hear from them again."

Hallquist acknowledged the Vermont Community Broadband Board expects challenges sourcing materials and finding labor, but said the organization is already trying to work its way around those -- including by preordering materials.

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