ST. ALBANS – With the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying “stay home” orders underlining the need to bridge the digital divide, Rep. Peter Welch, D – Vt., heard from broadband providers Monday on how to best span the gaps in Internet access.
While the COVID-19 pandemic had, in Welch’s eyes, made the digital divide “brutally real” in transitioning most of life online, gaps in high-speed Internet coverage have notably troubled the Green Mountain State long before the pandemic and become a ongoing focus area for the Congressperson.
Almost a quarter of Vermont’s population lacks access to the 25 megabits per second upload speeds and 3 megabits per second download speeds representing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s benchmark for “advanced telecommunications,” according to Vermont’s public service department.
According to providers, everything from high installation and maintenance costs to geographic challenges ranging from mountainous terrains to sparsely populated roads made expanding broadband services to meet that federal benchmark a challenge in Vermont.
Welch, when he introduced Monday’s conference call, took access issues a step further, arguing legislators should look for even better services in order to “future proof” rural broadband and keep it competitive with the higher speeds found in the U.S.’s urban areas.
“When I say, ‘future proof,’ I don’t want us settling for 25/3,” Welch said, referring to the FCC’s benchmark. “Whatever is available in the urban areas with high-speed Internet, unless we have it, we’re going to always be playing catch-up.”
How to best achieve those goals, however, was a question providers largely argued would require more easily accessible federal dollars and, according to some, “technological agnosticism” rather than federal programming’s preference for the extension of fiber.
More than once, several providers argued wireless services should be deployed as an alternative for expanding fiber in harder to reach areas where infrastructure would be expensive, something others disputed due to the weaker services that comes with wireless technology.
“If somebody wants service and actual, real modern speeds, then they should be able to get it – so ‘future proof’ speeds and matching Vermont’s goal of 100 [megabits per second], and that means fiber for the most part,” Central Vermont Fiber’s Jeremy Hansen said.
Instead, Hansen argued, wireless services could be deployed as a stop-gap while fiber networks are expanded, a process that, by all accounts, was time consuming and, according to most of those who spoke with Welch Monday, an expensive process.
“People have opinions about, ‘should we be agnostic?’” Hansen said. “I’m of the opinion it should be fiber using wireless to temporarily fill those gaps until we can get fiber there.”
One of the FCC’s funding tools referenced more than once during Monday’s call was the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), a $20.4 billion fund for supporting the expansion of broadband in rural areas created by the FCC in 2019.
In a public notice outlining program requirements for RDOF, the FCC has proposed standards that would likely exclude wireless services from the program, calling for Internet speeds that, according to the FCC, virtually all fixed wireless service providers would be unable to meet.
But, several providers told Welch, those wireless services would be important for bringing broadband services to areas where infrastructure for fiber would be too expensive for companies to install given how few connections the infrastructure would ultimately support.
“Fiber is best usually… but it’s not always the best solution,” Kingdom Fiber’s Michael Birnbaum said. “It’s the most expensive solution and the most capital-intensive solution, and… I think it’s important to keep in mind there’s a place for other technologies.”
According to most of those speaking Monday, the constraints of funding sources like RDOF made expansion a challenge in Vermont, whether it was due to its preferences for fiber or geographic and time constraints attached to funds issued through the program.
“It’s a very complicated process for those of us who are not only the administrators but builders of these networks,” said Duncan Telecommunications’ Cliff Duncan. “I’m not sitting here with the luxury of an attorney.”
Some advocated for localizing that funding and distributing it at the state or tribal level, where it could be more responsive to local needs.
Others reported that extending fiber was itself could be cost prohibitive, especially in Vermont’s more rural corners serviced by smaller companies like the Franklin Telephone Company, the company’s chief Kim Gates told Welch Monday.
“We love operating here… but it’s expensive to build to and it’s expensive to maintain,” she said. “We’re building out and we’re ready to build out, but it’s a hard business case to invest in some of the line constructions we’ve been going through… There’s a lot of homes way off the road for just one service.”
Others said they were concerned about construction and supply capacity within Vermont, with Gates reporting she wouldn’t receive fiber until September and with ValleyNet’s Stan Williams noting, “there’s not enough bucket trucks to build 1,000 miles of fiber.”
According to the FCC, approximately a quarter of rural America lacks consistent access to what the commission qualifies as “advanced telecommunications.”
Reports from industry groups like USTelecom and advocacy organizations like Broadband Now have suggested FCC’s reporting dramatically underestimates how many Americans – particularly in rural areas – lack access to high-speed Internet.
Welch, during Monday’s conference call, said national support for expanding broadband services in rural areas was growing to an all-time high with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing Americans to transition to working from home and attending school remotely.
“I do see us as having a moment, which I don’t want us to blow, where because of this virus and the absolute existential necessity of having high-speed Internet for medicine, for education and for business – that gives us some wind at our back,” Welch said. “I want us to use it wisely and effectively.”