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To close Vermont’s digital divide, a broadband plan will use a satellite service

Proponents of a proposal that would focus in part on multi-billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service presented their argument for a faster workaround Monday, claiming the state’s digital gap can’t wait for the fiber-optic connectivity to be built out. Speakers like Broadband Equity Now coalition’s Tom Evslin and Senator Randy Brock, R-Franklin, a key proponent of a broadband bill which the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday will hear, stated Vermont absolutely could not wait for the 5 years it would take to create a fiber-optic network.

According to the alliance, 35% of Vermonters reside in places where high-speed internet is out of reach, and 15% live in places where there is no coverage at all. Both agreed that taking advantage of millions of federal high-speed internet dollars is critical to closing the state’s digital divide for schools, new people who choose to telecommute, and telemedicine. According to Brock, the issue must be treated in terms of how it impacts individuals. “We expend a great deal of time discussing technologies. What’s crucial to remember is that much of the advancement in the world is worthless until it’s affordable,” Brock said. According to Evslin, the proposal will make around 50,000 Vermonters liable for assistance.

The initiative advocates creating a “Broadband Corps” to assist underserved Vermonters in getting connected to service. It suggests spending $26 million in state funds to subsidize start-up expenses, hold monthly bills for eligible households under $25, and create the Broadband Corps. The plan will also allow Starlink’s usage, a satellite internet service that Elon Musk’s SpaceX business is launching. The service is currently in beta tests, and it’s causing controversy because Musk plans to use the profits to finance his ambitious Mars project.

Christine Hallquist, a retired utility executive who now leads the 32-town NEK Broadband Communications District, has utilized the service and believes it is “not prepared for prime time.” Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, has stated that she has “less than zero” confidence in the state contracting with a private firm that is not accountable to Vermonters. However, Evslin stressed that the state would not be throwing all of its eggs in Starlink’s bowl but rather seizing the chance to fix the dilemma as soon as possible.

“The argument isn’t that fiber is stronger than Starlink. The argument is that getting Starlink is preferable to not having broadband, according to Evslin. Three factors set this program apart from previous broadband programs, according to Evslin: Advances of infrastructure “that helps one to get to the end of the road without necessary digging up the center of the lane”; a supply of federal funding; and increased state oversight regarding the usage of emergency funds are all on the table. Brock’s measure, S. 118, has a lot in common with the H. 360, the House’s broadband plan from last month. On the other hand, the Senate bill is less based on Communications Union Districts (CUDs) than the House bill. It does not need internet service providers to partner with CUDs if they received loan funds.

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