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Vermont’s internet access problems reflect a greater struggle across rural America

Vermont’s internet access problems reflect a greater struggle across rural America

“I’m looking forward to high-speed internet, streaming TV,” said John Gilchrist, a Concorde resident, as a fiber-optic cable crew drove home earlier this year.

The fiber-optic cable that began servicing the remote part of Concord and will one day serve Victory is provided by NEK Broadband, a service of nearly 50 Vermont cities that delivers high-speed Internet to the most remote parts of the state.

Krista Schott, executive director of broadband at NEK, said the group’s business plan calls for services to all potential customers within five years, but given current supply constraints and a lack of trained technicians, she is beginning to believe that goal is unattainable.

“I think it will take seven to ten years to build us,” she said.

Congress has committed tens of billions of dollars to a variety of programs to help bridge the digital divide exposed by the pandemic when millions of people were confined to their homes with no way to study, work or get medical care online.

The first of that money is going to municipalities, businesses and other groups involved in the effort, but some say supply chain issues, labor shortages and geographic constraints will slow the startup.

The demand for fiber-optic cable extends beyond wired broadband to homes and businesses. The cable will help provide the 5G technology that is now being rolled out by wireless carriers.

But there is a bottleneck in the offer. The problem is supplying the protective jacket that surrounds the thin strips of glass that carry information about rays of light, says Michael Bell, senior vice president and general manager of Corning Optical Communications in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Currently, some working on broadband expansion say the delay in getting the fiber optic cable they need could be more than a year.

“Depending on the capacity we are adding, and the capacity we see our competitors adding, wait times will start to drop significantly as the year progresses and into next year,” Bell said. “And I think as we go into next year, the lead time for most clients will be less than a year.”

Meanwhile, there is a shortage of labor for cable installation. Many in the industry are setting up educational programs to train people to work with the fiber, said Jim Hayes, president of the Santa Monica, California-based Fiber Optic Association.

“It should be done now,” Hayes said. “We will need to train maybe ten techniques for each of our tech who are qualified to lead it.”

The Jobs and Infrastructure Investment Act, the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill passed last fall, mandates that regions receiving broadband speeds of less than 25MB and downloads of 3MB are considered unserved. To qualify for various federal grants through billing for infrastructure and other software, most finished projects must offer at least 100 Mbps download speeds. Download speeds vary, but most federal grants have at least 20 megabytes to download.

For comparison, it takes 80 seconds to download a 1 GB video at 100 Mbps. It takes four times – 320 seconds, or more than 5 minutes – at a rate of 25 megabits per second.

The National Communications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Agency, which funds broadband projects across the country through the Infrastructure Act, is neutral on how ISPs reach speed requirements. Many service providers say that the key to bringing high speed internet to the entire country is to install fiber optic cable in every nook and cranny.

Deploying high-speed Internet to tribal communities and rural areas across the western United States where distances dwarf those in rural northern New England, will be an even greater challenge.

Broadband access in the Navajo Nation — the largest US reservation at 27,000 square miles (69930 square kilometers) in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — is a combination of dial-up, satellite service, wireless, fibre-optic, and mobile data.

Federal assessments, rights-of-way permits, environmental reviews and antiquities protection laws could delay progress, said the US Department of the Interior, which oversees broad tribal affairs.

The argument against wireless options currently in use in some areas is that they cannot provide the speeds needed to qualify for federal grants.

Wireless technology is getting faster and more reliable, and wireless connections could be the only way to get to some remote locations, said Mike Wendy of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.

“The challenge with all that money is making sure the unserved are served,” said Wendy, whose organization represents about 1,000 fixed wireless Internet providers. “Our guys are in those markets now and they’re growing.”

Ohio Deputy Governor John Hested said $233 million will be used in his state to expand broadband to more than 43,000 families. Other ISPs have agreed to extend broadband to another 51,000 households. Ohio is expected to receive an additional $268 million in federal funding to expand broadband in the state.

Husted said Ohio is focusing on infrastructure while groups and organizations are needed to provide computers and help people adapt to the rapidly growing digital age.

“We’re building the road,” Hested said. “Broadband access is like a highway system. That’s where we focus. It doesn’t mean that there are people who don’t need cars or who need driver’s licenses.”

There are still scattered locations across the country that rely on dial-up and some people in remote locations use satellite internet services. Some people don’t have any internet options at all.

Martel, the Victory City writer, said that when people from NEK Broadband visited the community, they told residents that it would take five to seven years before fiber-optic cable reached the community.

But Schott says her organization is hoping for a grant to connect most rural areas, which could move Victory’s schedule by up to three years.

Meanwhile, back in East Concord, after serving for several weeks, Gilchrist said he and his daughter Emily, a 19-year-old who headed off to college in a few months, no longer have to go to the local restaurant to use the internet. He canceled his expensive satellite TV service, his daughter and her friends were using it to play online video games, and in a few months she would be using the connection during their college studies.

It’s been working great, for me all I do is check email,” Gilchrist said. “I don’t watch TV, but my daughter loves it.”

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