MONTPELIER – On Tuesday, Vermont lawmakers will look at a proposal to create a three-part broadband equity program using $27 million from federal relief funding.
The bill, S.118, would help subsidize installation and monthly payments for broadband for people who live in an area where the costs are too high for low-income Vermonters.
It would also establish a Broadband Corps to help Vermonters get connected and access any aid they might qualify for.
“All of the technology in the world is useless unless it’s affordable, particularly to those people who are at the lower scale of income in Vermont,” said Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin).
The pandemic has shown that reliable internet connection could be considered a necessity, and an important tool used to access education, healthcare and employment.
When going to class, doing your homework or studying means driving 15 minutes to use the Wi-Fi at a local McDonalds, it’s easy to understand how life-changing reliable internet access could be. 17 year-old Samantha Donahue of Graniteville knows all too well.
“It’s about 15 minutes from my house and I’ll go in there, sit down and connect to the W-iFi and get as much as I can done,” Donahue said. “But when I’m behind, it just makes me feel so bad because this isn’t who I am.”
Both Samantha and her mother Dawn need internet access during the week – Samantha for her school work and Dawn for her job as a state employee connecting low-income Vermonters with affordable healthcare.
“It’s quite exhausting, actually, because between my daughter and her homework issues and me working from home, we can’t both work at the same time, and throughout the day my internet will just drop,” Dawn said. “I’ll be in the middle of processing work or an application and it drops, I have to start over.”
Their story is one of many – only half of Vermont families live in an area that has both reliable internet and available low-income plans. If you’re in the other 50 percent, chances are you’re stretching your budget or don’t have access at all.
Tom Evslin of the nonprofit group Broadband Equity Now is asking the legislature to consider subsidies for low-income families who want to access Starlink, a low-orbit network of thousands of small satellites produced by Space-X. The network could help connect people in corners of Vermont that otherwise could have to wait several years for connection.
“We’re doing this conference on Starlink so if you wonder if Starlink is usable – yes,” Evslin said. “We think it’s possible with these new technologies that in the next year or so that every Vermont family who wants it really does have access.”
Testimony for the broadband equity bill begins on Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee.