MONTPELIER — Vermont’s elected leaders and lawmakers are in broad agreement about extending high speed broadband to every home in the state.
But there’s a renewed focus on how much that service will cost Vermonters who need broadband access for school, work, remote medical consultation and business opportunities, lawmakers said Wednesday.
The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday took more testimony on a pair of competing legislative proposals envisioning ways the state can use suddenly plentiful federal funding to finally bridge the state’s digital gap.
Comments during that hearing, and during a roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., stressed the importance of making access affordable for households which, to this point, have been unable to afford service, or access it at all.
During the roundtable, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray said the debate should put “accessibility and affordability needs at the center” and prioritize delivering that service quickly to Vermonters who have been doing without.
“If we agree ... that broadband is the electricity of our time, we must address affordability as a barrier for roughly 50,000 low-income Vermont families,” Gray said. She also called for “an immediate, short-term companion plan to rapidly and urgently identify all the tools at our disposal to offer emergency broadband access now to those in need.”
One approach, as presented in a House bill that passed last month, is providing revolving loan funds to the state’s Communications Union Districts (CUDs) — public boards created to enable the work of building fiberoptic broadband networks with a universal reach.
Another, outlined in S. 118, envisions a similar structure as the House bill, but would provide funding to a broader range of public and private providers including CUDs.
A third proposal, made by Gov Phil Scott’s administration on Tuesday, sees the CUDs as a primary vehicle for using $225 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to build out high-speed service to underserved and unserved Vermonters.
Speaking Wednesday during the roundtable, Scott emphasized he wants to be strategic about how the state uses the “once in a lifetime opportunity” of COVID-19 relief dollars to invest in infrastructure that will pay off for years to come.
Leahy, who was praised widely for his help in securing $1.3 billion in ARPA funds for Vermont, in turn lauded state leaders for their attention on the broadband issue.
“I applaud Vermont. You’re about to make serious inroads,” he said.
Scott, Gray, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski also spoke during the roundtable. It was hosted by state Rep. Tim Briglin, whose committee drafted the House broadband bill, H. 360.
Welch said the $80 billion broadband infrastructure bill he has been working on with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., is likely to be folded into the massive infrastructure bill President Joe Biden has proposed.
“Everybody is now aware broadband is like electrification in the 1930s” as a universal necessity, Welch said.
Later Tuesday during the Senate Finance Committee meeting, Public Service Commissioner June Tierney ran through a comparison of the House and Senate bills. Though she did not endorse one or the other — she said the administration is “agnostic” over which approach the Legislature chooses — her comments indicated support for CUDs as the main provider of service.
“If you’re going to have targeted results that achieve an objective, you’re going to want to have a sharp mission focus. In that sense H. 360 does that job in that manner,” she said.