The next three to four years of our economy is being described as a potential “Goldilocks moment.” It is a combination of untold amounts of money chasing both need and opportunity. It is a potential in response to forced adaptation by the Covid pandemic. The virus took us to our knees; it forced us to look at ourselves and acknowledge we’ve ignored the imperatives and opportunities essential to a forward looking nation.

Whether it happens as described is anyone’s guess. But it’s been more than a half century since we’ve even had the discussion.

That same sense of hope is breaking out in Vermont, with the same need that it be transformative, something that forever changes the landscape, a restructuring of the foundation.

A glimpse of that potential came to light this week in the Senate Finance Committee with the introduction of S.188 by Franklin County’s Sen. Randy Brock and its House companion bill; H.360. The legislation pushes the build-out of universal broadband to every corner of Vermont, something that has been on the state’s radar for years, but something that has been more wistful than real. There was never the money, and the timeline for stringing fiber to the last person on each road seemed endless.

The pandemic has changed our priorities and our opportunities. What became obvious is that when confined to our homes the divide between those who have internet access and those who don’t creates monstrous, and very costly inequities. Families who don’t have access cannot work remotely. Their children can’t do their school work. They are cut off socially. They can’t connect for Telehealth — physical or mental. They suffer, and we suffer.

What the legislation addresses, however, is that the problem is not so much access to broadband as it is affordability. It doesn’t do people any good to have access if they can’t afford it.

Former Vermont “Stimulus Czar” and tech aficionado Tom Evslin, of Stowe, testified this week that there are as many as 50,000 Vermont families who can’t afford the broadband available to them, or who don’t have the necessary information as to how it can be hooked up, and which providers are most affordable. That’s a sizable percentage of the state’s households without broadband. And it’s within easier reach than we had been thinking in prior discussions.

The proposal, supported by Mr. Evslin and groups like the Champlain Valley Office of Economy Opportunity, Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont, is to use $27 million of the state’s stimulus money to subsidize the cost of installation and covering the monthly costs for low-income Vermonters. It would also establish a “Broadband Corps” to actually help low-income Vermonters navigate how to get the service and to pay for it. The bill would also require that all internet infrastructure built with federal dollars include a low-income rate.

The intent is that this effort be “shovel ready” by August. This year.

The proposal is smart, and its reach is immediate. Not only does it deal directly with the inequity issue, it creates a base approach that could have positive repercussions statewide. It’s is not instead of the fiber build-out, it’s building upon the assets that are already in place. It begins now. Not five years from now. In doing so, it has the potential to reduce future costs, increase efficiencies, and perhaps put something in place that takes advantage of changes in the marketplace.

The secret to Vermont’s long-term prosperity is figuring out how to improve life for the 30 percent at the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder, something exceedingly difficult to do if they don’t have access to the internet. This is a key reason CCV and VTC are supportive. Today, we have almost half our high school graduates electing not to further their education. Providing access, and having it be affordable, is how we raise our educational levels and provide our employers with more qualified employees. Think of the potential of improved health care outcomes, and cost savings, with telehealth visits. Think of the mental health benefits for organizations like Northwest Counseling and Support Services [NCSS] being able to access their clients easily and confidentially.

The longer we ignore the accessibility issues of low-income Vermonters the more we exacerbate the attendant social and economic costs. That’s why the bill’s supporters are intent on getting started immediately. They’re correct. A $27 million investment is peanuts compared to the return.

Then, there’s this: While this is underway the push to extend fiber to our rural area continues. It’s the gold standard of connectivity. It will take an estimated seven to 10 years [if we’re lucky] to finish the build-out. In the interim, satellite technology continues ahead by leaps and bounds. We don’t really know where the technology will lead us, but just as no one expected Tesla to be where it is, or the development of super batteries to be at its current level, it’s important to be developing a base of users now, a base that can be incorporated into whatever system materializes. That’s basic business. The sooner we begin the sooner the accompanying synergies come apparent.

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray has added her voice to the same immediate need: “While I agree with some of the long-term proposals that have been put forward to build out permanent broadband...those proposals can’t come at the expense of those Vermonters who don’t have access right now, day and day out.”

She’s right.

by Emerson Lynn

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