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One of the silver linings that came out of the pandemic was the clear need for high-speed internet along every “last mile” of the state.

We have heard that term here in Vermont for more than 20 years. Former Gov. Jim Douglas used to talk about getting every resident wired so that Vermont could compete in the global economy.

That last mile refers to the final leg of any telecommunications network that delivers services to customers. It does not come cheaply.

COVID showed us that Douglas, and every other advocate for online access since his days in office some two governors ago, was correct. We need connectivity for education, banking, communicating, entertainment, health care and so much more. It is an indispensable part of our lives.

Nowadays, the internet going out is as anxiety producing as the power being knocked off.

Christine Hallquist, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Scott to oversee the Vermont Community Broadband Board, told VTDigger recently that it would probably cost the state more than $1 billion to connect every home to fiber.

So the state’s nine communication union districts (CUD) have been working together to buy about 2,000 miles of cable that will go toward shortening that last mile.

Vermont received some $350 million in pandemic relief funding to facilitate the cable installation among other technology.

But there is a hitch, of course,

According to a report on Vermont Public Radio recently, “Fiber cable is in short supply across the United States. … The federal government pumped billions of dollars into both COVID aid and the infrastructure bill to support broadband buildout, and so communities across the country are now scrambling for cable and equipment.”

That last mile remains costly and elusive.

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We need a little luck on our side to get the job done.

Neighboring New Hampshire, along with three other states, had some good fortune this week that could be a game-changer in their states. The Granite State, Virginia, Louisiana and West Virginia will receive more than half a billion dollars in federal funding to expand broadband access as part of a sweeping national effort to bring affordable service to rural and low-income Americans.

According to The Associated Press, they are the first to benefit from this aspect of the $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, which is expected to bring internet service to 200,000 homes and businesses in the four states.

It’s part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021, the AP noted.

“There has never been anything like the pandemic to create a national teaching moment that we cannot have equal economic and educational opportunity unless all Americans and all regions, from urban to rural America, have access to high-speed affordable internet service,” Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to Biden, told the media.

West Virginia is set to receive $136.3 million in Capital Projects Fund money, with $219.8 million going to Virginia, $50 million to New Hampshire, and $176.7 million to Louisiana. All other states are eligible as well, and must submit plans to the Treasury Department by Sept. 24 demonstrating how funding could fill critical needs.

We hope Vermont is on the next list. According to VPR, Rob Fish, of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, about 64,000 homes, or a little more than 20% of Vermont, has inadequate broadband service.

Ideally, by the time Vermont might get some additional federal dollars, more cable will be in place, the labor shortage will have improved (it’s been tough to find workers to put the cable down across the United States, let alone Vermont), and the supply-chain issues will have resolved the kinks getting the equipment and supplies to rural states like Vermont.

The last mile is not a figment of our collective imagination. It’s reality. The pandemic showed us just how real it could be.

— Rutland Herald