Report from the Legislature

Rep. Mike Yantachka.

Vermont’s economic growth has been nearly stagnant since the turn of the century. Looking at employment statistics since 1999 we can see that Vermont’s employment numbers have remained fairly level at roughly 340,000 even during the 2008-2010 recession. On the other hand, they haven’t grown since the recession either. While Chittenden County has experienced growth, the rest of Vermont has not.

The factors affecting the overall economy in Vermont are many, and the interaction among them is complex. I am not attempting to address the issue comprehensively here. However, the House Committee on Energy & Technology is looking at one aspect of the challenge—how the limited access to high speed internet affects Vermont’s economy. For the past two weeks we have heard testimony from Vermont’s telephone companies, cable providers, community broadband companies, small businesses, municipalities, and the farming community which utilizes access to the internet for GPS controlled tilling, fertilizing and harvesting. One thing is clear: outside of Chittenden County and city centers, Vermonters’ internet speeds are slo-o-ow. While most Vermonters are able to get DSL with speeds of 4 Mbps (megabits per second), many in more remote locations have only dial-up. The federal standard for satisfactory speeds is 100 Mbps, which requires cable or fiber connectivity. As we become more of an information-based economy, access to high-speed internet is essential for economic growth. So, the question becomes, how do we achieve this in Vermont?

The limiting factor when it comes to building high-speed broadband is cost per connection. In rural areas where customers are relatively far apart, the investment required to run miles of cable for few connections is prohibitive. Wireless connection is possible, but the wireless transmitters require a fiber or cable connection, and Vermont’s terrain often limits the effectiveness of those devices. Some communities have formed organizations called Connectivity Union Districts (CUDs) that are non-profit entities that aggregate investments from several municipalities to build independent fiber networks to serve the member communities. There are several in Vermont, including EC Fiber in the Connecticut River Valley and Kingdom Community Fiber (KCF) in the Northeast Kingdom. KCF has been given permission from the State of Vermont to connect to an existing fiber network owned by the state. State connectivity funds will be used to install the connection interfaces at various locations that will be leased to KCF to build fiber networks in communities running from St. Johnsbury north and west to Highgate.

The Energy & Technology Committee is now working on legislation that will encourage further development of fiber networks throughout rural Vermont. The 2 percent VT USF charge on our phone bills supports the E-911 system, the Lifeline phone access program for seniors, and the TTY service for hearing impaired persons. What is left over from those revenues is used to support the Connectivity Initiative Fund. Governor Scott has proposed a $1M infusion to the fund to increase broadband. We believe that we can do better. We are working on a bill that, in addition to the Governor’s proposal, will increase the USF charge to 2.5 percent with the additional revenues dedicated to connectivity. This would amount to a 50-cent increase on a $100 phone bill. We also hope to benefit from additional federal dollars as a result of the recently passed federal Farm Bill. Back in the 1950s Vermont made a concerted investment in getting electricity out to the last mile. Broadband is the 21st century equivalent to that effort. It’s a key ingredient necessary for growing Vermont’s economy.

I am very happy to have been able to meet with constituents during my “office hours” at the Charlotte Library and most recently at Spear’s Store in East Charlotte. My thanks to both venues for their hospitality. The next “office hours” opportunity will be announced beforehand on Front Porch Forum.

I welcome your emails, phone calls at (802) 233-5238, or in-person contacts. This article and others can be found at my website.