Rural broadband expansion progresses slowly despite influx of federal funds

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VICTORY, Vermont — For the approximately 70 people who live in the remote community of Victory, Vermont, City Clerk Tracey Martel said she regularly gets frustrated watching a spinning circle on her computer as she tries to accomplish even the most basic municipal tasks online.

“Fast internet would be really nice,” said Martel, whose community was one of the last in Vermont to receive power nearly 60 years ago. The DSL service it now has works for basic Internet, but it can be spotty and doesn’t allow users to access all the benefits of the interconnected world.

About 5 miles away as the bird flies into the nearby community along Miles Pond in the town of Concord, a new fiber optic line begins to bring true high-speed internet to residents of the remote area known as Northeast Kingdom name.

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

The fiber optic cable that begins to serve the remote part of Concord and will one day serve Victory is provided by NEK Broadband, a utility service to nearly 50 cities in Vermont that strives to bring high-speed Internet service to the remotest areas. remotest parts of the state.

NEK Broadband executive director Christa Shute said the group’s business plan is to offer services to all potential customers within five years, but given current supply constraints and shortages of qualified technicians, she begins to think that this objective is not achievable.

“I think our construction will take seven to ten years,” she said.

Congress has earmarked tens of billions of dollars for various programs to help bridge the digital divide exposed by the pandemic when millions of people were locked in their homes with no way to study, work or seek medical care. in line.

The first of those funds is reaching municipalities, businesses and other groups involved in the effort, but some say supply chain issues, labor shortages and geographic constraints will slow the rollout.

The demand for fiber optic cables goes beyond wired broadband for homes and businesses. The cable will help deliver the 5G technology currently being deployed by wireless communications providers.

But there is a bottleneck in the supply. Michael Bell, senior vice president and general manager of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Corning Optical Communications, said the problem lies in providing the protective sheath that surrounds the thin strands of glass that carry information about the beams of light.

Currently, some working on broadband expansion say delays in getting the fiber optic cable they need can exceed a year.

“Depending on the capacity we add and the capacity our competitors add, wait times will start to decrease significantly as the year progresses and into next year,” Bell said. “And I think as we approach next year, the delivery time for most customers will be well under a year.”

Meanwhile, there is a labor shortage to install the cable. Many industry players are implementing educational programs to train people to work with fiber, said Jim Hayes, president of the Fiber Optic Association, based in Santa Monica, Calif.

“It has to be done now,” Hayes said. “We’re going to have to train probably ten techs for every tech we have that’s competent to run them.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill passed last fall, said areas that receive broadband speeds below 25 megabits download and 3 megabits downstream are considered unserved. To qualify for various federal grants through the Infrastructure Bill and other programs, most completed projects must offer speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads. Download speeds differ, but most federal grants have a minimum download of 20 megabits.

For comparison, it takes 80 seconds to download a 1 gigabyte video at the speed of 100 megabits per second. It takes four times as long – 320 seconds, or more than 5 minutes – at 25 megabits per second.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Agency, which funds broadband projects across the country through the Infrastructure Act, is neutral on how Internet service providers are meeting speed requirements. Many providers claim that the key to bringing true high-speed Internet service nationwide is to lay fiber optic cable in every nook and cranny.

Deploying high-speed Internet in tribal communities and rural areas of the western United States, where distances dwarf those in rural northern New England, will be even more difficult.

Broadband access on the Navajo Nation – the largest reservation in the United States at 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – is a mix of dial-up, satellite service, wireless wire, fiber and mobile data.

The US Department of the Interior, which exercises broad oversight over tribal affairs, said federal assessments, right-of-way permits, environmental reviews and archaeological protection laws can delay progress.

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

Mike Wendy of the Association of Wireless Internet Service Providers said wireless technology is getting faster and more reliable, and wireless connections may be the only way to reach some of the most remote places.

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

Ohio Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted said $233 million in state dollars would be used in his state to extend broadband to more than 43,000 homes. Other internet service providers have agreed to extend broadband to an additional 51,000 homes. Ohio is set to receive an additional $268 million in federal funding to continue broadband expansion in the state.

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

“We’re building the road,” Husted said. “Broadband access is like the road network. This is where we focus. This does not mean that there are people who do not need a car or a driver’s license.

There are still scattered locations across the country that rely on dial-up access and some people in remote locations use satellite internet services. Some people have no internet option.

Martel, the City of Victory clerk, said when people from NEK Broadband visited the community, they told residents that it would take five to seven years for fiber optic cable to reach the community.

But Shute said his organization hopes to secure a grant to connect the most rural areas, which could move the victory deadline up to three years.

Meanwhile, back in East Concord, having had the service for several weeks, Gilchrist said he and his daughter Emily, who is 19 and heading to college in a few months, no longer need go to the local restaurant to use the Internet. He canceled his expensive satellite TV service, his daughter and friends are using it to play video games online and in a few months she will be using the connection while continuing her college education.

“It worked really well, as far as I’m concerned, all I do is check my email,” Gilchrist said. “I don’t watch TV, but my daughter loves it.”

History of Wilson Ring and Mark Gillispie. Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca contributed to this report.

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