Live call-in discussion: Public, educational and government access, or PEG access television, has for decades served community-produced cable programming to the Vermont public: graduation ceremonies. town meetings, the governor’s twice-weekly COVID-19 press briefings.
However, shifts in consumer behavior — away from cable in favor of internet streaming — have brought PEG access’ primary financing mechanism, payments from cable companies, into question. This hour, we hear what a new report says about the financial viability of PEG access in Vermont.
Our guests are:
Peter Bluhm, consultant with Berkshire Telecommunications Consulting, which prepared the PEG access report for the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD)
Kenneth Jones, ACCD’s economic research analyst representative
Laura Sibilia, Independent who represents the Windham-Bennington district in the Vermont House. She serves as vice chair of the House’s Energy and Technology Committee, one of a handful of legislative committees that received the PEG access report from ACCD
Lauren-Glenn Davitian, co-founder and executive director of Burlington’s CCTV/Center for Media and Democracy, a founding member of the Vermont Access Network
Broadcast live on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the glaring inequities in broadband internet service in Vermont. Reliable and affordable internet is essential for virtual schooling, work and accessing health care. Now, three different ideas — from three widely different entities — are being considered as ways to boost high-speed internet access.
Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Legislature have competing ideas about how to bring broadband to everyone who needs it. At the same time, new and potentially game changing satellite technology being pioneered by businessman Elon Musk could bring high-speed service to even the most isolated pockets of the state.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with VPR senior reporter John Dillion, who has been following these broadband-related efforts. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So how are these developments related?
John Dillon: Well, it’s all about connectivity. The pandemic is still with us. Everyone is still working at home. And the latest numbers are that Vermont still has 46,000 to 47,000 locations that lack access to the federal definition of basic broadband. That’s down from about 70,000 at the start of the pandemic, because the state rolled out a bunch of emergency programs last spring and summer, but still, a lot of people can’t get online with anywhere near the speed they need.
So, the governor has a $20 million spending plan to address this. It’s getting somewhat mixed reviews in the Legislature since they have their own ideas. But meanwhile, we’ve got Elon Musk, who keeps launching satellites, and that could absolutely change things, at least in the shorter term in Vermont and the rest of rural America.
OK, and this is Elon Musk, like the Tesla guy?
Yeah — he also happens to be the world’s richest person. He’s got a rocket company, and so far he’s launched 1,000 small low-Earth satellites, orbiting satellites, that can get you internet if you’re in the middle of nowhere, like on a dirt road in the Northeast Kingdom.
I talked to Tom Evslin about this, and he lives in Stowe and is kind of one of Vermont’s tech pioneers. He worked for Microsoft. He’s also been the state’s chief technology officer. And he’s really the ultimate early adopter and was really eager to try Starlink, this new satellite service.
OK, and how did it work for him?
Really well. We actually talked on Zoom over Starlink. Tom says it was really easy to set up. In fact, you just take the thing out of the box and the dish, which you need to get the satellite signal, aligns itself. So, it gets a signal and then just points itself to the right spot. The speeds are much better than DSL, but they’re slower than the highest of your fiber-optic services.
I interviewed a couple of people around the state who use Starlink. A select board member of Monkton who got it said it changed his life because he no longer has to drive and park outside of a Wi-Fi hotspot for business meetings. This service is being rolled out in rural Vermont and people seem to like it so far.
More from VPR: Did Your Zoom Freeze Again? COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Internet Inadequacies
Yeah. And so, Tom Evslin, the early adopter, what’s his takeaway about the potential for Vermont?
Well, he says we should define the problem maybe a little differently than we are. He says it gets back to the need for immediate connectivity. So, he really sees Starlink service as a bridge to longer-term solutions that the state is working on, but that could take at least a year or more to build out, like fiber optic.
Evslin said the state should take some of that $20 million the governor wants to spend and help people who can’t afford to pay for Starlink right now. Here he is:
“As a state, we should start thinking about affordability and trying to make sure that this year, not two years from now, three years from now, but that this year, everybody gets access.” – Tom Evslin, Starlink user
And Henry, to back up, Vermont and so many other rural places are in this situation because internet is not defined as an essential service that providers have to deliver. It was deregulated by Congress back in 1996 and that left it up to the private sector and larger companies like Comcast and Consolidated to go where the profits are, and that’s where people or potential customers live.
More From Brave Little State: What’s Vermont Doing To Improve Broadband Access?
For them, it’s all about customers per mile. And if it’s not profitable to serve you because you’re at the end of a dirt road, you’ll wait for a very long time. And Evslin points out that this doesn’t apply to Elon Musk with his satellites.
“So, every other provider cares about density. Well, Starlink doesn’t care at all about density because it isn’t any more expensive to reach somebody out in the middle of nowhere, as long as their dish can see you, than somewhere in a populated area.” – Tom Evslin, Starlink user
So, it’s not only game changing from a technology perspective potentially, but also the economic and business model is quite different.
This is happening just as the governor is making his spending proposal and the Legislature has its own plan to expand broadband. So, tell us a little bit more about those two plans. Are they competing?
Yeah, in a sense. As mentioned, the governor wants to spend $20 million now on broadband, and he’d do this by helping pay for line extensions — sort of what they did this summer to underserved or unserved areas — and he’d use $16 million in grants and loans, probably primarily aimed at helping communication union districts. These are the local providers that are springing up all over the state that have plans to deliver fiber-optic service to the home.
The Legislature, meanwhile, has a more ambitious or far-reaching plan. It’s now being crafted by the House Energy and Technology Committee, and it would set up an entire new entity in state government called the Vermont Community Broadband Authority. It’s basically a reshuffling of how the state promotes and pays for broadband, and it’s really aimed at making one department responsible and then getting out $36 million in loans to these communication union districts.
More from VPR: Vermont Legislature Eyes ECFiber As Model For Community-Based Broadband Build-Out
I talked to the committee chair, Rep. Tim Briglin, about the bill. He’s a Democrat from Thetford. He says big government restructuring is needed because what we’ve done so far hasn’t delivered.
“I would have hoped that 10 years ago we would have done this well and we didn’t, which is why we’re where we are right now. My committee is taking a long view on how to get this done.” – Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford
And what’s Rep. Briglin’s reaction to the idea of helping people pay for or subsidize Starlink service — that Elon Musk satellite service — to get folks online quicker?
I’d say Rep. Briglin is a little skeptical, but not averse to looking at it. He says the state has bet wrongly on supposedly game changing internet technology before.
“Starlink is the latest one to come up, and certainly, you know, supported by the wealthiest man in the world.. and they’ve got a shot at being successful, but we don’t know.” – Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford
So Briglin says these CUD’s — these Communications Union Districts — are really the best solution for Vermont. He points out that when the Legislature did a big broadband bill two years ago, that really directed a lot of resources at these fledgling CUDs. There were only two in the state and now there are nine.
But what would be the timeline on that? How long would it take to actually get internet to residents?
It still could be a couple of years before the last mile is reached, and Starlink could reach people now. The problem is the cost — $500 upfront and then a $100-a-month fee. And I think it remains to be seen if the Legislature will want to help people pay for that, as Tom Evslin suggests.
Brave Little State is our people-powered journalism show, which means we include you in our decisions about what to cover, and we raise up your voices.
Today, in place of Vermont Edition, we answer a listener-submitted question about disparities in broadband access in Vermont. We also revisit an episode from the Brave Little State archive about the pros and cons of wood heat.
What’s Vermont Doing To Improve Broadband Access?
The pandemic has shifted even more of our lives online. So what’s being done to address Vermont’s internet inequities?
That’s what Maggie Eppstein of Hinesburg asked Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening if you can! But we also provide a transcript below.
Subscribe to Brave Little State, so you never miss an episode:
Angela Evancie: John Dillon — or JD, as you are called in the newsroom.
John Dillon: Yes.
Angela Evancie: You went to talk to today’s question asker, Maggie.
John Dillon: I did. Her name is Maggie Eppstein. She lives in Hinesburg, out in the country.
John Dillon: Hi!
Maggie Eppstein: Nice to meet you.
John Dillon: Nice to meet you.
John Dillon: And I went to see her on this really beautiful but windy day in the fall. So, I was going to talk to her outside, you know, safe distance, pandemic and all of that. But because the wind was whipping around so much and it was just distorting on my mic, we went into her two-bay garage and shut the door.
[GARAGE DOOR CLOSING]
Maggie is a retired professor of computer science at UVM, although she still does research there. And she’s keenly interested in education, especially how kids are doing with remote learning because of the pandemic. So she was really interested in how that’s going to happen if kids can’t get online.
Maggie Eppstein: And COVID-19 has really brought to the forefront the inequities in broadband coverage in Vermont. And I’ve been hearing politicians talk about this for a long time. But I’m wondering, what concrete steps are they actually taking to address this right now?
John Dillon: As Maggie points out, you know, the pandemic has exposed the inequities out there for who has broadband and who doesn’t. Those inequities were there before COVID, but when the pandemic hit, they were just brought out in such sharp relief.
[MUSIC: “MATAMOSCAS” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]
According to the state, 71,000 addresses, so physical buildings, don’t have access to the federal definition of broadband, which is a download speed of 25 megabytes per second and an upload of three, that’s like basic broadband. And they may have DSL, very slow internet — I’ve interviewed somebody who has dialup — or they may have none at all. You know, I talked to somebody who climbed halfway up Mount Hunger once to get a good cell signal to upload a data file with his iPhone during the pandemic.
So large parts of the state can’t get internet fast enough to work at home, get their health care at home and learn at home — all the things that we asked the public to do to keep everybody safe.
And then there’s the cost. You know, it’s not cheap. You could have that 25/3 line going by your house, but it may cost you $70 to $100 a month for cable. So that creates another big group of haves and have-nots, another inequity, because for some, that’s just too big a cost. It’s a choice between broadband and food in some cases. And those were the inequities that were brought forward.