BRATTLEBORO — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., compares the issue of broadband today to electricity in 1930s, when rural communities were slow to get connected.
The case for connectivity, he said, had to be made around social benefits rather than economics.
Broadband "is one of the areas, and unfortunately one of the few areas, where there is an immense amount of common ground," he said Friday at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. office during a roundtable discussion on the subject. "There are two things we need. At the federal level, we need both regulatory policies and resources to help wire rural America. Second, I think the policy has to be that it's done in a way that we future proof, not just get speeds up a little bit. We've basically got to get the copper wire."
Welch applauded the advocacy work that led to a new Vermont law that allows for communities to get grants to help with building new broadband networks.
State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said the broadband expansion bill H.513 is intended to turn the existing approach on its head. Instead of waiting for telecommunications providers to develop projects in rural communities lacking broadband services, those communities will be given resources and technical assistance to do it on their own.
"The big carriers could care less," Welch said. "They sweet talk us but they don't come in and get the job done."
He later told local lawmakers, "Good job."
State Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, said it is "exciting" to see how conversations have changed at the state level.
"Even a few years ago, people were talking about connectivity like it was a nice add-on as opposed to, 'We cannot survive in rural Vermont and rural America without it,'" she said, adding that expanding broadband is a way to keep small towns "viable."
Gretchen Havreluk, economic development consultant for the town of Wilmington, told Welch, "Ironically I'm late because of the internet."
Havreluk said she had been trying to submit a grant online at home in Jacksonville.
"And I'm paying over $70 a month for my internet and I was not able to upload this large file," she said.
Wilmington has fiber options for residents and businesses in the center of town between Route 100 and Route 9, Havreluk said, "but it is cost prohibitive for some of those businesses to access that fiber."
State Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Windham-1, called efforts to bridge the internet-speed divide between rural and urban areas "so important." She considers it an issue of both community and economic development.
State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham-2-1, wondered if Universal Service Fund money could be used for community-built networks in Vermont.
"We are having a big debate about how to best use those USF funds and in June we might have some suggestions," Welch said of the money historically dedicated to expanding access to telecommunications and communications.
Brattleboro Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland said there are parts of Brattleboro "still at the dial-up phase of the internet. And that is is not acceptable."
Those neighborhoods, Moreland said, "are getting further and further behind from what the national government recognizes as a bare minimum standard."
Moreland said lacking connectivity can lead to inequity among children. He listed Dummerston, Guilford and Marlboro as communities struggling to get better broadband service.
Dover Economic Development Director Steve Neratko said internet access has prevented people from moving to Dover or staying for longer periods of time.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.