Internet access has long been an issue in Vermont, particularly more rural areas. With the introduction of two bills (S.188 and H.360) in the legislature, in tandem with proposed use of COVID relief funding, Vermont has opportunities to expand broadband access.
A major figure in this movement is Christine Hallquist, the former CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative and 2018 candidate for governor, who recently partnered up with NEK Broadband, a communications union district (CUD) in northern Vermont.
The Messenger spoke with Hallquist recently about expanding broadband in rural Vermont.
Give us some background on your history with telecommunications and NEK Broadband?
You should know that I’m also the administrator of Lamoille Fibernet. I’ve been the administrator for two years now. I have a technical background. I started my career in computers. I became the global power systems manager for Digital Equipment Corporation, the second largest computer computer company, so I’ve actually done some power supply designing in computers, so point being I have a strong technical background.
I came to Vermont Electrical Cooperative in 2000 as engineering operations manager and immediately started applying technology. We were actually the first utility in the nation to GPS all of our assets and get off our paper maps in 2003. I started working on the smart grid in 2005.
In 2003, our board of directors started pushing to say, ‘How do we get broadband to all of our members in the Northeast Kingdom?’ So, I’ve been working on this issue since 2003.
Fast forward to 2015. I became aware that Vermont’s future depends critically on getting everyone connected to fiber optic cable. That has to be the answer. All this other stuff is just nonsense.
None of these other technologies are going to be ready for the kind of future we have in terms of bandwidth requirements. Starlink is not the answer either. Fiber has to be the answer and it gets down to the physics.
So, I didn’t win the campaign, I went up to Canada and did a joint venture to try and build a new battery for the electric grid. Worked on that for a year and a half, came back here and I got the call ‘Would I be willing to work with NEK Broadband?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Of course, that was my campaign issue. It’s been my passion for greater than 15 years, I’d love to do this.”
That’s where I am today.
Q: What do you think the people of Franklin County need to know about broadband?
A: It applies to the rural counties in Vermont and getting connected is critical to our future. If you think about our competitiveness, we can’t attract manufacturing because we have very poor road infrastructure.
I’ve been through this before. People just don’t want to come to Vermont because of our poor road infrastructure. We can’t really afford to build major roads. We can’t afford to attract major companies through tax incentives because we just don’t have the capacity. So, the one thing we have is our intellectual capacity. It’s our ability. It’s our place to live. If we get everyone connected our future will be bright in terms of the economy. If we don’t, it’s going to be bleak.Q: Why is Vermont so behind the curve? Is it just because it’s rural?A: We’re either the smallest or the second smallest state in the country and we have the lowest density per mile.
The way it works today is the telecom providers that are in business need to make a profit. They aren’t going to go down below 20 customers per mile because they lose money. We’re looking at the northeast kingdom that’s right now, unserved areas average 6.5 customers per mile.
Q: What are the biggest challenges to broadband in the state of Vermont as you see them?A: The biggest challenge is the false belief that the private telecom providers are gonna solve this problem. They aren’t going to solve this problem.
The only way we’re going to solve it is through the CUDs. I think the legislature finally understands it but the private telecom providers are not going to be the answer. Starlink is not going to be the answer. There has to be fiber and people keep talking about these interim solutions.
I’ll use Starlink (Tesla founder Elon Musk’s company) as an example, there’s a lot of people overhyping Starlink, but the physics are that they have ground stations that run on radio frequency and radio frequency is limited in bandwidth. A single piece of fiber has about 1,000 times the capacity of one of those ground stations for Starlink and we’re hitting at about 144 of those single fibers so you’re talking about thousands of times capacity.
Q: Explain megabytes. How does that relate to fiber?Well, this gets down to the physics. We’re using light to transmit data. Light for all purposes has an infinite level of capacity. It’s just limited by how you feed it.
For example, at Vermont Electric Cooperative they are still using fiber that was put up in the 1970s. Fiber is like your electrical wire, it’s good forever. Getting down to the basic physics, there’s nothing faster in the universe than light and if you look at the amount of bandwidth in light, it’s infinitely higher than the amount of bandwidth in radio frequency.
A: How is a for-profit company different from a CUD?It’s simple, the for-profit job is to make a profit. The CUD’s job is to serve every address. Those two goals are directly in conflict with each other. I won’t mention names but I’ve had those major companies’ senior executives say, “Christine, you’ve got to understand, you get it because you work in private business. Our goal is margin. Our goal is to make a profit. We’re totally in conflict with your goal to serve every last member. We’re not gonna do that.”
Q: Is NEK in talks with the NW Communications District?We’re definitely in talks. It’s too early for Northwest because they aren’t as far along as we are. Speaking for Lamoille Fiber and NEK, we’re a lot further along and we are having conversations with private partners, we’re actually in the process of starting engineering construction on projects right now.Q: What has your progress been like? A: We have a project planned already. The engineering will be done by July. The construction will probably not take place until fall because the utility has to do their “make ready” but essentially you can call that construction. Right now we’re developing our business plan. We talked about April 1; having a good idea of what the network would look like. We’re developing a network for 57 communities, 57 towns in the Northeast Kingdom. We’re also looking at Wolcott and Lamoille. So, we’ve got that network designed. Now what we’re doing is prioritizing where to start. By June we’ll be able tell individual communities when we’ll be able to get there.Q: Is there a future for NEK Broadband in Franklin County?A: We have been pushing for Northwest to kind of work together with us. I think we might have made the boards nervous with Northwest. We’re not asking for a merger. What we’re asking to do is share resources. When you design networks you really need to be thinking about bigger than just the CUD because you want to design what they call resilient rings that go across CUDs.
So, right now at NEK we’ve been pushing Lamoille Fiber and Northwest to form a northern tier focus. So, now of course Lamoille fiber and NEK are working together but Northwest hasn’t quite. I’m not sure what’s happening with Northwest to tell you the truth. It seems either they haven’t had enough discussions or there’s something holding them back.
Q: So, NEK would be willing to work with Northwest in a joint effort to bring fiber to Franklin County as a team?A: Yes. We’d love to. We’d love to interconnect Franklin County with this Northern Tier Network. We’ve already laid out some proposals with Lamoille and Lamoille has agreed. We’re looking at some joint projects already. Let’s put it this way, we’d like to do some joint projects with Northwest.Q: Is the state’s mandated goal of 100 megabytes over 100 megabytes by 2025 possible?A: I think the state has set the goal too low. If we connect fiber to every home and business, you’ll have gig speeds. It’s just 100 by 100, that is a good goal but our goal is far beyond that. Our goal is to get fiber to every home which means people with their homes can get 1,000 by 1,000 and even 10,000 by 10,000.
Q: What’s the price point on that?A: We haven’t established a price point yet, but let’s tie that with the low income subsidies. Our first goal — and Lamoille Fiber and NEK have the same goal — we need to get the entry costs as low as possible. The best things we can do for low income folks is to get the cost down.
First, we need to focus on affordability. We want to get our entry point for a connection below $50 per month. What’s that going to look like? Maybe $50 a month buys you 100 by 100, but if you want a gig you might have to pay $75 or $80 — I’m just using that as an example.
The challenge with subsidization really needs to be addressed at the state level because we don’t have the household income information that the state does. The state will really need to identify and target those groups that need to be subsidized and certainly we’ll support that.
Q: Vermont Chief Technology Officer Tom Evslin testified recently that there are as many as 50,000 families in Vermont who can’t afford the broadband available. What is your plan for accessibility for low income Vermonters?A: Today’s current prices are too high because they’re provided by for-profit organizations. If we get grant money, and we do it with a not-for-profit, that number will be a lot lower than 50,000 [families] because we’ll have a lot lower costs. So, you’re looking at entry costs of $80 per month. If you drop that to $50 a month, that 50,000 number will drop significantly.Q: When can residents expect broadband service here?A: We can’t answer that question. That’s really Northwest. For NEK and Lamoille Fiber, we’re building a five-year plan, best case we’ll hit every address in three years, worst case in five years. I think Northwest needs to get an administrator as soon as possible. They don’t have one. Right now, it’s an all volunteer board. Nothing is really going to happen with an all volunteer board.
Q: S.188 introduced by Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, focuses funding on short term solutions to help low income residents that already exists. What do you think about that kind of plan?A: I think that that’s important. I’m glad people are focused on that but keep your eye on the prize. The eye on the prize is getting fiber to every home and business at a low cost. We need to focus on the immediate need.
Q: Have you or NEK had talks with Sen. Brock at all?A: Yes, Our job is to remind Randy to keep focus on the CUDs and fiber to every business. He’s definitely focused on funding the low income folks and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not sure how big a supporter he is for the CUDs. But, you know, it’s a classic Republican/Democrat thing. If you look at the GOP they tend to be anti-government but meanwhile, do you believe government can help or do you believe government is in the way? It gets tied into this whole national tenure about socialized cost. Infrastructure. The telecom has suffered because we haven’t looked at it as infrastructure. I would argue strongly — and Randy Brock and I probably disagree on this — but telecom is infrastructure.
Q: Timothy Wilkerson, President of New England Cable & Telecommunications Association wrote a letter to Gov. Phil Scott saying that requiring fiber at such speeds “Destroys the notion of being technology neutral and puts government in the position of choosing winners and losers.” What are your thoughts on this?A: That is really an uneducated statement. The reason I think it’s ridiculous is because once you understand the power and the capacity of fiber optics, those other technologies don’t even hold a candle to it. Why are we wasting our money on those other technologies? That’s just the lack of understanding.
The greatest threat to our private business is an advancement to technology that they don’t own because they’re going to try to protect the existing assets and maximize the profits for the existing assets. Once you install fiber optics, fixed wireless ... cable, DSL, all goes away.
Q: If free market entities take charge, is there really more transparency?A: Definitely, the CUDs are required to follow open meeting laws, so I think it will be much more transparent. Let me just say, if you look at how we’ve watched videos over the years, you think about, we went from over the air television and went to beta and VHS and all of a sudden DVDs came about and put that out of business. Of course, now we’re downloading videos and livestreaming off the internet which is gonna put all of the other storage out of business.
Q: What’s the final message?A: We have a unique opportunity here with these grants coming down from the federal government. There’s potentially $250 million coming to Vermont. I guarantee you that if that money goes to the current telecom providers we will never see fiber to every home and business.