Vt. is getting millions to expand broadband access. State wants more oversight over public dollars
The warm weather means construction season is here. And the state is expecting a lot of activity this summer as it continues building out a high-speed fiber network to bring broadband service to underserved towns.
But this really important period in the broadband project comes as questions arise over the federal funding that's been paying for all of the work.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with southern Vermont reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman to find out why the Vermont Community Broadband Board is concerned about the federal aid that is being used to fund the state's broadband buildout. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So let's start by reminding folks what is so unique about how Vermont is trying to deliver broadband service to the rural areas of the state.
Howard Weiss-Tisman: So for a long time, for-profit companies didn't want to lay fiber down in rural sections of Vermont, because there weren't enough customers there. You know, there wasn't a good business plan for them to do that.
So, back in 2015, the Legislature authorized the creation of communications union districts, or CUDs. And the idea was that since the for-profit companies weren't willing to lay down the high speed fiber from pole to pole, volunteers from different towns would work together in the CUDs to raise the money and get the job done.
And so far, it's been working out pretty well. There are now 10 CUDs, and they represent more than 200 towns all across Vermont. Everyone thought that it would be a slow, multi-year project that they'd go out and bond for the money or try to get some grants. And then COVID hit, and all of a sudden there were these hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID relief funding. So things happened really quickly. There was a whole boatload of money in Vermont to get this work done. And more than $100 million has already been spent.
A whole boatload of money, but who's watching over all this money?
So that's the big question right now. A couple of years ago, lawmakers set up the Vermont Community Broadband Board. That's a five-member panel that is supposed to oversee a staff that's helping the volunteers with the work that they're doing.
And the CUDs have been entering into contracts with for-profit companies to lay the wire. And some of these companies are running the networks. So remember, the COVID money landed within a few years, and now the community broadband board wants to make sure the federal money serves Vermonters and not the companies that are working with the towns.
“We didn't make those standards from the outset. Because we were in such a rush. We needed to get the money out there. And now we're being told, 'Oops. Too late.' I think it's our job to go back and say, 'Are we comfortable with accountability?'”Holly Groschner, Vermont Community Broadband Board
Holly Groschner is on the community broadband board. And at the board's last meeting, this is what she said: Even though money's gone out, she says that the board needs to slow down a little bit and figure out how to measure accountability in the contracts.
“We didn't make those standards from the outset. Because we were in such a rush. We needed to get the money out there," Groschner said. "And now we're being told, 'Oops. Too late.' I think it's our job to go back and say, 'Are we comfortable with accountability?'”
You know, the state auditor put out a report in April on the broadband project, and that report recognizes some of these risks. The auditor specifically talked about the tension between the board and the CUDs, and the importance of getting the standards in place and not be forced to draft them on the fly or under duress. That's what it said in the audit. So as you heard in that tape of Groschner there, the board is trying to come up with ways to measure accountability. And that’s happening as all the CUDs are getting ready to ask for more money.
Well, as we said in the lead, Howard, it is construction season. And so a lot of the CUDs are probably hoping to move things right along. How's that effort looking?
Well, the work is really happening, Mitch, after all this time, there are pockets around the state where folks are getting high speed broadband service for the first time. But there's a real funding crunch right now, just as the CUDs are trying to keep things moving.
CVFiber, which is a CUD that works in the towns around Montpelier, asked the board at their last meeting for an extra $2 million, because they were running out of money. And at least three other CUDs are expected to run out of money too.
That's another thing the state auditor talked about in his report, that there's this funding gap that could slow things down.
The CUDs are waiting for money from the federal infrastructure bill. But that program has a lot of questions, too. We've been hearing about this FCC Broadband Map. And the state says there's a lot of problems with that map. And that's what a lot of this federal funding is tied to.
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So there are questions about that. And there are also questions about, you know, how Vermont's really unique way of setting up the CUDs, how that's going to work with the federal money. Federal money has all sorts of strings tied to it. And so the community broadband board is trying to figure out when it will get the money, and just how we're going to be able to use it. So just as all these CUDs are hoping to get their projects going, there's questions about the next load of federal money.
Originally, there was hope that this federal infrastructure bill would bump up right against the COVID money, but that's not going to happen. So it's going to be a busy and interesting summer as all these pieces come into play and the CUDs try to get the fiber strung up while the weather's good.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or reach out to reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman: