By Holly Groschner
Editor’s note: Groschner, a former partner at DR&M, is a telecommunications lawyer with 30 years of experience and the chair of the board at Equal Access to Broadband. She recently retired as the president & CEO of Vermont PBS. This commentary is the first in a 10-part series examining some of the most pressing issues in Vermont today. The authors are responding to the topics identified in a draft “Proposition for the Future of Vermont” developed by the non-partisan Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), which welcomes your ideas at futureofvermont.org.
Proposition Part 1: In this most unusual year, we could finally see how “short” we are on broadband. Perhaps you were one of the 22 million Americans over 70 who didn’t have an internet account to get a vaccine appointment. You may have seen the cars pulled up around the town clerk’s office or the library. Look closely and you’ll see the occupants catching a wifi signal to attend work meetings and doctors’ appointments. Four kids doing homework on one cellphone in a car all day is another visible demonstration that there isn’t enough broadband to go around. Our internet connections were also crucial to rally help, share words and videos, disperse food and funds, and provide reliable information. For many Vermont businesses, growing their online presence meant survival.
You may not have noticed, however, when slow internet service caused young families to leave your town rather than quit remote jobs. And, you may not have known the guy who applied for PPP benefits on service “borrowed” from the library or his mother-in-law. Maybe, if you’re reading this, it was your home that didn’t sell last year because the cost of fiber to your house is just too much.
Suddenly, everyone can see the value of being connected, and most of us agree that the absence of “reliable, affordable broadband” that reaches everyone is a big problem that is not going away. There is not a challenge facing Vermont, from childcare to medical care to the survival of the performing arts, to the economic survival of your town, that doesn’t, at some level, depend on a reliable solution to our tattered patchwork of internet connections.
Galvanized by the current crisis, and this visible problem, Congress is about to unleash a tsunami of federal funding that will reach Vermont. The intention is service in every nook and cranny, thanks to the leadership of Representative Welch and Senators Sanders and Leahy. And Governor Scott started the year by proposing $20 million in the budget to reach an estimated 60,000 unserved households.
Let’s say this is the magic moment when taxpayer money again comes together with the will to marshal construction crews, permits, and equipment, and gets the job done. Our patchwork of technologies, speeds, and levels of reliability could find common ground in a high standard for broadband delivery. We must not allow a waterfall of one-time money to be used for “make do” facilities against an artificial deadline. This transition requires performance standards, sharing of information and planning, coordination, rejection of knee-jerk competition, and an obligation to serve the greater good that should always come with public funding.
And when the construction dust settles, and quality broadband is available at every inhabited location, can we say we are connected? No, not yet. We will have secured a future for the state and created opportunity for many, but more than 60,000 low-income Vermonters will still not be able to afford the service or the equipment, or their landlord won’t accommodate the connection. The problem isn’t fixed until we address affordability.
In a current Pew Research survey of American parents with children attending school remotely, 36% of low-income respondents said it was likely their children wouldn’t be able to finish schoolwork because they lacked an internet connection at home. The same survey reported that 43% of lower-income parents said it was likely their children have to do schoolwork on cellphones.
Larry Irving, who coined the term “digital divide,” recently said, “In July of 1999… the digital divide was one of the most crucial economic and civil rights issues of the decade. I had no idea that more than two decades later, we’d still be talking about the digital divide….”
The digital divide is not a valley you can cross with fiber. The divide isolates low-income families that don’t have economic access to reliable and convenient service. It disadvantages their children in public education and requires that they incur the cost to travel for low-paying work. It makes it difficult if not impossible to access benefits and opportunities. If we hope to piece together our fractured democracy, we must not isolate financially-challenged Americans by leaving them disconnected.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission was urged by Congress to quickly distribute a $3.2 billion appropriation in payments to carriers of up to $50 per month of subsidized broadband service to low-income families. The FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) will use the existing framework for telephone subsidies, called Lifeline. As an existing system, it is familiar to regulated phone companies and big broadband providers with existing subsidy programs, and is, therefore, faster for the carriers and the FCC to use. But Lifeline is not a “user friendly” system for the recipient households. I tried to sign up for Lifeline. The state benefits consultant could not tell me where to find it. To register, you need a computer and broadband connection or a printer and a stamp.
Acting FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel urges that we all help support the EBBP, stating that “we need the assistance of local organizations, national organizations, schools, faith-based institutions, and others who are trusted voices in their communities, to help get the word out and encourage those in need to enroll.” If you can help a low-income family get connected, please see: fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit. Please note, however, that while “trusted voices” and local organizations are urged to support the national system, broadband providers are not required to participate, nor does the national system support small carriers in Vermont that don’t already have a subsidy program. There is still work to be done so that our local carriers can support all Vermonters who qualify. But the fact that a subsidy program exists says this: being connected is essential.
“Availability and affordability” is now my mantra. We are not connected until everyone can be online.