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Desperately seeking broadband

Matt Dodds of South Road Williston sits at his laptop with his cat

Rural Williston residents hit roadblocks on the way to high-speed internet

BY JASON STARR

Observer staff

Internet speeds for a swath of Williston’s rural residents are adequate for basic web browsing and emailing, but falter when it comes to live video streaming and gaming.

After a year-plus of tele-work and remote schooling — with multiple members of a household needing online access at the same time — those shortcomings have become more acute.

South Road resident Matt Dodds put on a full court press this spring to take advantage of federal coronavirus relief funding aimed at improving rural internet infrastructure. He organized a group of neighbors for a combined application to the “Line Extension Customer Assistance Program” (LECAP), hoping a group application would lower the cost for Comcast — which serves nearby neighborhoods with high-speed internet — to hook up South and Oak Hill roads.

Established in the first round of federal coronavirus relief funds under the Trump Administration and administered by the Vermont Department of Public Service, LECAP offers line extension grants of up to $3,000 per household. South Road residents abandoned their application in June after realizing that the grant would make only a small dent in quotes from Comcast that ranged from $16,000 to $30,000 for a line extension to their homes.

Rural southern Williston is currently served by Consolidated Communications at less-than-broadband speeds.

“We banded ourselves together and asked for an estimate from Comcast to bundle us all up,” Dodds said. “Comcast said ‘you guys don’t live close enough together to be bundled’ … which, of course, is a classic ‘Catch 22’ — we’re applying because we’re rural and can’t get served because we live too far apart. When they break us all up, the pricing is astronomical.”

Simultaneous to the LECAP application, Dodds pursued other avenues. He put up a satellite dish from the company, Starlink, which has provided him high-speed internet, but only intermittently. He then hired a tech specialist to make his Consolidated Communications service kick in automatically when Starlink goes out. So far, the system is working.

“It’s not at all cheap, but it sure beats the $16,000 price tag, less a $3,000 LECAP reimbursement,” he said.

The LECAP program has granted out about half of its $1.2 million allocation to roughly 200 homes statewide, according to Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Department of Public Service. A rule imposed by state legislators limited each grant to $3,000.

“For a lot of people in Williston, the cost is a lot higher than what our program is allowed to pay out,” Purvis said. “I would love to increase the amount of the grant, but unfortunately we are capped at $3,000.”

While the LECAP program is set to sunset at the end of this year, a new, better-endowed internet connectivity effort is just underway in Vermont, funded with $150 million from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The effort comes under the umbrella of the “Vermont Community Broadband Board” established by the Legislature this year.

On Monday, Gov. Phil Scott announced the appointment of Christine Hallquist as the board’s executive director. Hallquist, who ran for governor against Scott in 2018, is the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative.

The first meeting of the board will be on Aug. 9.

“Expanding access to broadband is critical in a 21st century economy, and by increasing connectivity in rural and underserved areas in every corner of the state, we will take an important step toward increasing regional economic equity,” Scott said in a press release announcing Hallquist’s appointment.

The funding will only support connections of top-of-the-line internet speed, according to Purvis. The networks of both Comcast and Consolidated Communications will have to be upgraded to be eligible for the program’s funds, he said.

“It remains to be seen whether they expand to every location in a town,” Purvis said. “It’s up to the board to figure it out, and that will take time.”

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