The Northern Vermont Connectivity Summit brought more than 40 people together on Dec. 5 to consider how to spread more and better broadband to the less populated areas of the Northeast Kingdom.
The NEK’s three counties are home 16 of the 20 most under-served towns in the state, where a third or more of addresses are unable to purchase even the most basic of internet service.
“It can be tempting to sit and wait, hoping that someone, somewhere will fix this issue for us,” Katherine Sims, Director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative told attendees that afternoon. “But the reality is that is unlikely. No one is coming to save us. It is up to us.”
Sims charged those gathered at NVU-Lyndon – community and municipal leaders, internet providers, funders, and state and federal legislators – to help her organization, Northeastern Vermont Development Association and Northern Vermont Economic Development District in creating an action plan for making progress on the issue.
Legislators and state administrators brought some hard truths. Expanding rural broadband is not currently a top funding priority for either the federal government or the state. State legislators from more urban areas do not understand that a digital divide still exists in rural parts of the state, said Rep. Sam Young of Glover.
Vermont Department of Public Service has a small amount of grant funding for service providers to cover the “last mile” into under-served areas, said Clay Purvis, director of the telecommunications and connectivity division. But there is no regulatory mechanism for requiring that they provide equal access to everyone in the state.
Most of the substantial leaps in service in recent years across the state have come from communities banding together or partnering with providers to build their own fiber networks or wireless towers, a process that requires years of focus.
Carole Monroe, chief executive officer of the non-profit ValleyNet, described how EC Fiber, a collaboration of 24 towns in the eastern central part of the state that began in 2008, developed into the state’s first Communications Union District in 2016. Using private funding and bonding, the district has built almost 700 miles of fiber and recently connected its 3,000th customer.
Dave Stoner, who chaired the town of Craftsbury’s broadband committee, talked about the town’s construction of its own small 13-mile fiber network off the state-owned NEK Dark Fiber Network with the support of federal grants from the USDA and Northern Border Regional Commission. The town leased operation of the network to Kingdom Fiber, one of three internet service providers who presented at the conference, with fiber connections expected to be available to almost 50 percent of all addresses by the end of the year. Currently, only around 8 percent of addressed have access to true broadband speeds.
Representatives from Kingdom Fiber, New England Wireless and Consolidated Communications, which provides DSL across the region, expressed interest in working with communities across the region to improve service.
One important lesson from the summit is that Northeast Kingdom communities can take steps to improve connectivity on their own, said Sims. Another is that representatives in Montpelier and Washington need to hear that rural areas still need better service.
“Empowering community leaders to pursue small projects and bringing our story to decision-makers are clearly some of our next steps,” she said.
Conference attendees pledged to keep meeting and work to increase connectivity where it is most needed. They plan to explore forming a NEK Communications Union District and to consider how future federal grant opportunities could assist our communities.