MONTPELIER – On Wednesday, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) hosted a virtual roundtable discussion on broadband access in Vermont with Governor Phil Scott, Lt. Governor Molly Gray and other state leaders.
Vermont has roughly $1.25 billion in federal relief funds that can be used flexibly, and the state has already allocated $113 million toward broadband infrastructure. Governor Scott wants an additional $250 million to be put toward the effort as part of his larger proposal for allocating the relief money.
“It’s something we’ve all talked about long before the pandemic, and now, at this point in time, one of the silver linings of this challenge is that we have a real opportunity to make enormous gains,” Scott said.
Sen. Leahy has had an influential role in Vermont’s hopes to expand broadband service as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He spoke to the urgency of turning plans into action as broadband connection has become a necessity for accessing education and healthcare.
“Let’s be realistic, we’ve got the money but let’s make sure that we’re not aiming for something 25 years down the road, let’s think what we can do now,” Sen. Leahy said.
Lt. Gov. Gray said it’s great news that long-term plans to build out Vermont’s broadband infrastructure are taking shape, but believes there needs to be a short-term emergency solution to help people who have been forced to go to extreme lengths just to find a WiFi connection. She’s been in touch with a number of families, including one that set up a mobile classroom in their vehicle.
“They chain-sawed off some legs from a chair and used a toddler table as a classroom in the back of a 2007 Honda Element,” Gray said. “On colder days, they had to keep the engine idling just to stay warm.”
In the Vermont Legislature, House Speaker Jill Krowinski believes any long-terms should be thought out carefully. A lot of that flexibility will be contingent on the landmark $2 trillion American Jobs Plan in Congress.
“As Congress begins to work to craft another infrastructure bill, the one thing that is so incredibly important is that Vermont has the time to be thoughtful with any federal dollars we receive,” Krowinski said. “It gives us the time needed to engage with Vermonters across the state, and get their feedback on where the greatest need is for investment.”
As these discussions take shape, there will be another opportunity opening up this year –
The USDA ReConnect Broadband Program will reopen to Vermont applicants over the coming months.
Sen. Leahy had advocated for the program’s return, because it offers federal grants to help rural customers get connected.
There are roughly 60,000 Vermont homes and businesses without access to broadband, and the Legislature is also considering a bill that would make service more affordable.