There’s a big focus on the middle class and the economy ahead of President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday evening. But there’s another issue Obama is expected to talk about that’s particularly relevant to Vermont: expanding high-speed Internet access, especially to rural areas that don’t attract big telecom companies.
The White House says more than 30 percent of Vermonters did not have access to high download speeds in 2013 – that’s one of the highest percentages of any state in the nation. The president says one way to close that so-called “digital divide” is through community broadband.
Irv Thomae chairs ECFiber, a community broadband network operating in central Vermont, and he spoke to VPR about the president’s proposals on how to improve access here.
Defining 'community broadband'
"ECFiber is a joint venture of … 23 towns plus the city of Montpelier. And we joined together about eight years ago in what’s called an intra-local contract. In effect, EC Fiber is a not-for-profit that is owned by its 24 member towns. And we cannot, under Vermont law, be financed from local taxes. We don’t levy property taxes on member towns … We borrow money from where we can, mostly from local people, and in four years time, since we’ve started doing it this way, we’ve raised $6.3 million. We have about 430 distinct investors.
"We borrow money from people. The interest that we pay is tax exempt, because we’re municipal, but we borrow money, and we build the network. So far we’ve got about 200 road miles of network in service, and in we’re closing in on 1,000 customers."
On President Obama's interest in supporting community broadband
"It sounds wonderful. And we’re cautiously hopeful and excited. On the other hand, one of the [flags] I see when I read the real press release and the longer document from the White House – they’re going to convene a summit of mayors and county commissioners. We don’t even have county commissioners in Vermont. I don’t think the federal government comprehends what a small scale Vermont and other small rural communities operate at. And that’s concerning."
On what role the federal government should play in expanding community broadband
"There’s a tremendous need for money that can be used to build neutral infrastructure that different parties can use to reach people out at the ends of the dirt roads. And people out at the ends of the dirt roads are people that need it the most, because high-speed Internet has become essential to participating in today’s economy. Just as electricity and telephone had become essential in the 1930s, when the federal government put itself behind the Rural Electrification [Act]. There, they made it possible for co-ops to borrow money at low costs. What they focus on now is grants. And they could make their money go farther if they talked about a credit enhancement … It should be easier to borrow money to get a project build that contributes to the local economy. As people depend more and more on the Internet to reach markets and colleagues and get their work done, if we can’t get the Internet out to where people can afford to live, we’re not going to be an economically viable state, except in our larger cities. And I’m not sure that’s all of what Vermont’s about, is large city life."
On the effectiveness of community broadband, given its challenges
"I guess the question is, what’s the alternative? One of the underreported problems – it’s gotten some attention, but not enough – is that in large swaths of the country the big telecom giants, if they see an area where they don’t think they can make adequate profit for their shareholders, they try hard to make it impossible for anyone else to do anything. It’s all right with me if Big Telephone and Big Cable don’t want to build out in rural Vermont. But I want to be sure that doesn’t keep Vermont from having any options at all."