Vermont governor signs bill aimed at expanding broadband

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill into law on Thursday aimed at getting broadband to all rural areas of the state.

The legislation supports community efforts to design and build broadband networks, like EC Fiber, a nonprofit, community owned fiber-optic network available in 22 member towns. The measure provides technical assistance as well as grants for communities to do feasibility studies on how to build and pay for broadband.

"This is a bill that is empowering our citizens to solve this problem," said Independent Rep. Laura Sibilia of Dover, where Scott signed the bill. She noted that the state cannot force providers to offer the service and it lacks the more than $600 million needed to build out a fiber network.

The money for some aspects would come from a slight increase in a phone tax.

The legislation also provides loans to community efforts and internet service providers to reach those underserved areas and adds money for match grants for providers.

According to Department of Public Service data, 7% of Vermont households lack the most basic high-speed internet access and nearly 20% do not have access to modern internet speeds, lawmakers say. Many Vermonters in rural areas only have landline service, with no cellphone service and little internet, Sibilia said.

"There's a lot of vulnerability that is in the future for rural areas if we don't act," she said.

Broadband service is also important to reducing social isolation in older residents, said AARP Vermont, a strong advocate for the bill.

"Being able to send emails and engage in social media allows older Vermonters to stay connected to family and friends, access online newspapers and magazines and be a part of the digital world we all live in today," said AARP Vermont State Director Greg Marchildon.