MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — The pandemic has shown just how important it can be to have quality high-speed internet service available everywhere. With that in mind, the Vermont Department of Public Service is working with an outside consultant to create a new 10-year telecommunications plan.
One of the objectives is making broadband universally available statewide. The consultant, Rural Innovations Strategies, Inc., hosted the second of three public hearings about the draft plan Thursday night.
The authors estimate that nearly 50,000 homes and businesses statewide don’t have access to broadband internet. Matt Dunne, managing director of Rural Innovations Strategies, said moving “from very poor technology to future-proof technology” would cost between $360 million and $440 million.
However, money from the American Rescue Plan is offering an unprecedented opportunity to connect them. Christine Hallquist, former CEO of Vermont Electric Co-Op, said she likes most of what she sees in the draft plan. However, she said the cost estimate may be too low.
Hallquist is now the administrator of NEK Broadband, a communications union district covering 40 towns in the Northeast Kingdom. “We’ve got a high-level analysis with NEK Broadband, and it comes in at about $132 million with about 26% of the underserved and unserved locations in the state,” she said. “If you extrapolate that out to the state, it would be about $520 million.”
Dunne acknowledged that the price tag may need to be revised. “Your comments here are super-helpful,” he said to Hallquist. “And it is why we provided a range, because as you know, it’s always different when you actually get on the ground rather than using models.”
Montpelier resident Steve Whitaker is critical of the telecom plan. He pointed to Vermont’s recently-passed $150 million broadband bill. “I hear talk, or I see press releases, that suggest that we’ll do this in ten years,” Whitaker said. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t an option. The statutory goal is 2024. The funding is available. You don’t have the option of choosing to take ten years.”
The broadband bill would only give American Rescue Plan money to entities that can show a blueprint for universal broadband service. Whitaker and others hope the state’s plan includes a way to hold providers accountable if they don’t live up to their blueprints.
The final draft comes out June 1. An online public hearing is scheduled from 6-7 p.m. You can also submit written comments through June 30. You can find out more online about the Tuesday public hearing room, including an online survey through which you can offer written comments, and the draft of the telecom plan itself.