When Liv Boyer had to attend a Zoom lecture during the pandemic, she shouted out a warning to her two homeschooled siblings, her mother and father, to turn off their devices: “Hey! Everyone out!” the high schooler yelled from across the family home in North Bennington.
Multiple users would cause streaming audio to stutter and video to freeze; she would have no choice but to miss class.
The slow connection was also difficult for the rest of the family. Liv’s father, Bryce, a commercial photographer, often has to send large files to clients. Bryce was used to making the 50-minute round trip to the city’s library — which has high-speed internet — to submit photo files. Sometimes he would make the trip three or four times a day if his client wanted last minute changes. It was exhausting.
The Boyers had tried all sorts of options to increase their internet speed. They even invested $500 to install a Starlink satellite dish, which ran slower than the cable connection they relied on.
When they moved to Vermont from Colorado five years ago, the family expected slow Wi-Fi. But the bad connection, Bryce conceded, hurt his family more than expected.
All that changed a few weeks ago when the Southern Vermont Communications Union District connected the Boyers to high-speed fiber optic cable as part of the state’s ambitious broadband strategy, which is in the first phase of implementation.
“We saw the trucks as they started laying the cable and I couldn’t believe it,” Boyer said. Technicians connected the family to a fiber optic line for free. For $70 a month, the Boyers get 800 megabits per second of speed — an upgrade Bryce said has changed their lives. Now Bryce can upload his photos from home and the whole family can be online at the same time.
“So far it’s amazing,” he said. “I can actually work.”
The Boyers are among rural Vermonters getting fiber-optic connectivity for the first time thanks to an influx of COVID-19 relief funds aimed at fixing the state. The company is almost a decade in the making and has had a series of false starts. But the creation of the Vermont Community Broadband Board in 2021, established by Act 71 of the state legislature, is finally paying off — at least for some.
Slowly, the state’s communications union districts — covering 213 of Vermont’s 251 cities — are connecting residents to fiber, street by street, house by house. This month, residents of five Chittenden County townships voted to create the state’s 10th CUD. Even in Vermont’s most populous county, some residents lack reliable internet.
Five of the ten CUDs have started rolling out and almost 1,000 customers have been connected. Most CUDs are just beginning to work through their neighborhood list.
Access to high-speed broadband has provided a significant quality of life improvement for families like the Boyers. You can easily work remotely; School children can participate in extracurricular activities and telemedicine is finally an option.
“This launch means Vermont will lead the nation in delivering premium broadband virtually anywhere in the state,” said FX Flinn, chairman of ECFiber, a CUD. “It’s going to have profound implications for the next generation or two.”
So far there have been few financial incentives for private providers to roll out fiber optic networks in rural areas; It is costly to run lines across vast landscapes with few customers. But by establishing CUDs, the Broadband Committee has been able to help defray the costs of building networks. “Now you can say, ‘What’s the best way to do this?’ Not ‘What’s the most profitable way to do this?’” Flinn explained.
Most importantly, federal money poured into the project. In July, Gov. Phil Scott announced $47.8 million in grants to support high-speed Internet connectivity projects statewide. That means the state has a combined total of more than $245 million in broadband investments, mostly from American Rescue Plan Act funds. But Christine Hallquist, executive director of the Broadband Board, a state group that develops policies and programs to speed up broadband connectivity, estimates it will cost $550 million to connect every Vermont home. She hopes CUDs will make up the difference with revenue bonds and creative financing models.
Lawmakers have tried to ensure that the upgrade does not put an undue burden on taxpayers. A CUD can fund its operations using bonds backed by income from projects, grants, or gifts.
Currently, around 60,000 homes across Vermont do not have access to reliable, high-speed Internet. Hallquist predicts that the number of homes connecting to fiber will skyrocket in 2023 and that the entire state will be connected in five years.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation and also a lot of impatience,” said Robert Fish, associate director of the Broadband Committee. “Everyone wanted that yesterday.”
The expansion of the fiber optic network is a challenge. Supply chain issues and labor shortages have proven to be the biggest problems so far. Fortunately, the Broadband Authority bought more than 2,000 miles of fiber a year ago to anticipate such problems.
But Flinn, chairman of ECFiber, said he’s struggling to staff his installation routes. “Now that the money is in order, work is proving to be a major obstacle,” he said.
Hallquist, who has established a robust training program for electrical engineers in Vermont, said Seven days that the broadband board is targeting, recruiting and training people to work on all aspects of the rollout. Hallquist hopes to close the hiring gap through apprenticeship programs, college grants, job placement services, and an earn-to-learn program. In the worst case, the board is willing to hire technicians from Canada.
Despite staff shortages, the Vermonters are wired. Ed Sinnamon, a 68-year-old retiree from Bolton, said just days after technicians from Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom arrived in his neighborhood, they arrived at his home. “And boom!” “Suddenly we had broadband,” he recalls.
Sinnamon and his wife weren’t too concerned about their WiFi speeds until the outbreak of COVID-19. Suddenly her unreliable ministry was her link to the world. The couple tried FaceTime with their daughter, who lives in Connecticut, but the connection was weak. Her church’s live streaming sermons were hard to watch. And as members of Bolton’s Economic Resource Committee, the couple struggled to attend meetings. People would assume they wouldn’t even attend.
“We’d say, ‘We’re right here! We’re talking to you!’ But nobody could hear us,” he complained.
Now? “Everyone says, ‘You’ve never looked so good!’ ‘You’re crystal clear!’ ‘We can hear you!'” gushed Sinnamon. The quality of his wife’s telemedicine appointments has improved, he said.
For rural Vermonters, broadband access is a matter of equity. Without easy access to telemedicine, remote work opportunities, and schooling, Vermont’s rural population could be left behind on several fronts. “We’re seeing an economic divide resulting from this digital divide,” Hallquist said.
These realities also make it difficult to attract new residents to the state and boost Vermont’s economy. Properties with reliable WiFi generally fetch a higher price. Without high-speed services, cities find it difficult to attract newcomers or retain their young residents.
However, many rural Vermonters try to be patient while waiting for a high-speed connection. Andrea Burke, who lives in Halifax with her husband and four children, was told her home would be connected in the next 12 to 24 months. “It just seems to be gone forever,” she moaned. “It’s so painful.”
Burke, who works for a Connecticut-based company, often spends the day outside her kids’ school, where there’s a hotspot, working from her car. As her children attended school remotely during the pandemic, one of her sons had to choose between having his camera on during class – which his teacher required – or actually being able to Listen the lesson. He worries that his freshman grade point average, which was negatively impacted by his less-than-reliable Wi-Fi speeds, will hurt his chances of getting into his dream college, Burke said.
Decades ago, broadband rollout was compared to Vermont’s rural electrification project. It wasn’t until 1964 that the town of Granby in the north-east of the UK was finally connected to the electricity grid.
“The Internet is the electricity of our time,” Burke said, noting the vast disparities in broadband connectivity across the country. But she’s looking forward to the day when her family is finally connected. “I’m really excited about how different my life will be, how much more efficient it will be.”