Christine Hallquist made a strong but unintentional cargument for universal broadband on Thursday. The former utility executive and gubernatorial candidate is now working to bring broadband to northern Vermont, as administrator for NEK Community Broadband and for Lamoille FiberNet.
Hallquist was a witness at a Thursday hearing on broadband, appearing, as is everyone, via Zoom. And her testimony was delayed by several minutes because of trouble with her Starlink internet connection.
Once she finally managed to be heard, Hallquist made a strong case for achieving universal broadband through the “communication union districts” around the state, including her own.
(She also wins the imaginary “See, I Told You So” award. Several years ago, she was talking up the electric utility infrastructure as the best, easiest and cheapest delivery system for broadband. Lo and behold, that’s the backbone for getting high-speed internet to every corner of the state.)
Broadband is no longer an unrealized dream but a near-future reality, thanks to the Covid pandemic. With many Vermonters working and schooling their children from home, broadband suddenly became a necessity. And the federal government’s Covid relief packages have injected billions into the nationwide broadband project, with hundreds of millions flowing into Vermont’s effort.
But the devil is in the details, and those details are being worked out right now in the Legislature. Anyone interested in broadband should be paying close attention, and giving their lawmakers an earful.
There are two fields of debate on broadband. The less important is exactly how much money will be invested. I say “less important” because everyone favors a sizable, game-changing investment. (Also, we can expect another big influx of federal cash later this year if President Biden’s infrastructure plan becomes law. For once, money is not the main issue.)
More crucial, and more debatable, is who will get the money and how will the state oversee the process?
The Vermont House broadband bill, H.360, puts the effort in the hands of the CUDs. The bill also mandates “100/100” MBps service — the current high-speed standard. The Scott administration emphasizes the CUDs, but would leave the door open to a role for established internet providers like Comcast and Consolidated Communications. The administration would require a minimum download/upload speed of only 25/3 MBps, which is considered basic at this point.
The House bill is now before the Senate Finance Committee. An apparent majority of the committee favors CUDs, but their first priority is starting the buildout as soon as possible by any means necessary. For shovel-ready CUDs, this is good news. Less developed CUDs could be pipped at the post by an existing ISP with a shiny proposal.
The House bill would establish a new Vermont Community Broadband Authority specifically aimed at guiding and encouraging the CUDs. Another bill now before Senate Finance, S.118, would create a Vermont Telecommunications Authority to regulate broadband and telecom services. It would also spread any state appropriations between broadband and wireless, which would reduce the investment in broadband.
Hallquist appeared before Senate Finance, and delivered a clear, cogent argument for the CUDs as the best way forward. Her slideshow can be accessed via the committee’s website here.
She first noted the unfortunate history of the broadband investment made a decade ago with post-Great Recession stimulus money. It went to commercial providers — who failed to achieve anything like universal service. “Do we want to go down the same path again?” she asked, “Or do we choose the path of public accountability with the CUDs?”
She also warned of the likelihood that incumbent ISPs will engage in “cherry-picking” — extending service in profitable areas, and orphaning the hard-to-reach. The stated goal of the CUDs is universal access. Finally, she said that CUDs are committed to affordable high-speed internet to all, including price breaks for poorer Vermonters.
Hallquist gave a detailed overview of the buildout process, which would heavily depend on existing utility infrastructure. Vermont’s power companies seem amenable to the idea.
For those of us who value CUDs, this is the opportunity to influence the debate. Vermonters with senators on the Finance Committee should make their voices heard as soon as possible. But all senators will eventually be voting on this, so if you prefer homemade, community-based high-speed internet, let your senators know.
Disclosure: I‘m doing some work for CVFiber, the CUD in central Vermont, on an entirely volunteer basis. I’m doing so because I believe in their work.