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Vermont to receive $229 million in federal funds to expand broadband access

 broadband tower outside under blue sky
AP/Toby Talbot
President Joe Biden announced that Vermont will receive $229 million to expand access to broadband in the state.

Vermont is set to receive $229 million in federal funding to expand high-speed broadband access in the state, according to an announcement from the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB) on Monday.

The money is part of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program. Vermont’s share comes from a total pool of $42 billion made available nationwide.

And Vermont's allotment comes after a monthslong effort to challenge the FCC’s National Broadband Map — which state officials say overstated the number of Vermont households with a reliable broadband connection.

Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Rob Fish, the Deputy Director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, about the funding. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So let me start by asking about this money that Vermont is getting to expand broadband access. How does that compare to what the VCBB was hoping that the state would get?

Robert Fish: Before we started this process of challenging the data submitted by various telephone companies, various cable companies, wireless providers, and asking Vermonters across the state to challenge the level of service in their area on the FCC map, we were expecting anywhere between $150 million and if we were lucky, $200 million. Yesterday it was announced that we received $229 million.

From our calculations, the work of Vermonters, the work of the Vermont Community Broadband Board and every business, government official and resident that pulled out the stops and challenged these maps has resulted in the state receiving upwards of $50 million more than we would have received otherwise.

And Rob, the other question is how is this money actually going to be spent? I mean, which areas of the state are most in need, and how will they get those funds directed to them?

So the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Act is where this new funding is coming from, this $229 million. It's going to be a competitive program that we're in the process of developing rules for — developing a program that fits within the federal requirements, but also emphasizes accountability, oversight and affordability and local control where possible. So this is going to be a program that's open to all providers. And we'll be developing the rules over the next few months.

About how long do you think this is going to take to get everybody — because that's the ultimate goal — everybody who needs high speed broadband connected? what kind of a timeframe are we looking at here?

The president said yesterday that every single person in the entire country is going to be connected by 2030. We're expecting it to move a lot faster here in Vermont because of the investments we've already made. There might be a few stragglers at the end. But Vermonters even today are seeing the results of the [American Rescue Plan Act] funds being spent on broadband. And I would expect to see quite the change in the amount of available service over the next few years.

And once the money starts flowing, how is it going to be tracked to make sure that it's being used correctly and connecting people who need the access?

Well, just like with the ARPA funds that we record, we're going to likely be requiring participants to have a sustainable business plan to have a heck of a lot of reporting requirements to make sure that everything stays stays on the rails, that the people that need to benefit are the ones that are benefiting and to make sure that there's accountability and oversight.

More from Vermont Public: Vt. is getting millions to expand broadband access. State wants more oversight over public dollars

And again, Rob, where's most of the need? Are we talking about some of the more remote places in the Northeast Kingdom? Or is it really all over the state?

It's all over the state. Oh, there's certainly an emphasis on the Kingdom. They're lucky and just received that $30 million USDA Reconnect grant. But that's still a drop in the bucket for what's needed. This money is going to be focused on areas that providers have left behind until this point.

There's many places in Vermont where the number of people per road mile does not make a strong business case. Those are the areas that currently don't have cable service, that have been traditionally the last to be built out with new technologies. While this effort requires universal service, just like with our ARPA funds, we are determined to make sure that no Vermonters are left behind, whether they're at the end of a dirt road, or whether they were just left behind by a provider deciding that this area was not profitable enough.

Rob, you mentioned the importance of Vermonters who challenged this FCC map when it first came out that overstated the number of Vermonters who were already connected to high speed broadband. Is it important that Vermonters continue to check and challenge the FCC's national broadband map?

Well, we encourage Vermonters to continue to challenge the map. Everybody, whether it's the providers or the states, want the most accurate data possible as we implement this plan. Vermont was very successful in the challenge process. We had 10,787 challenges accepted. Each one of those challenges was worth potentially $4,000 to $6,000. And that only counts what we did at the state level — not what individual Vermonters do. So we encourage Vermonters — if what shows up on the map doesn't match with their on-the-ground reality — to submit a challenge to the FCC as well as to the VCBB, because we're all dedicated to finding out what's really happening on the ground.

The other thing that's important to note about this program is it's the BEAD program — B-E-A-D. So it's broadband equity, access and deployment. There's a saying that's going around that "BEAD without equity is BAD." So we've been traveling the state having public hearings and virtual hearings, gathering information from Vermonters from all walks of life to find out what their experience is with providers, what their experience is with having the skills to be able to use this technology that at times can be life-changing and is important for rural communities to, frankly, to survive. So we want to hear not just if you have access, but the type of access and the skills and the program and the training you need to make the most of it.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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