Big gaps in broadband internet service

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MANCHESTER — Manchester Center has among the state's best broadband coverage and fastest download speeds even while some communities are still struggling to get decent internet service.

About 99.2 percent of Manchester Center, and 97.4 percent of the town of Manchester, can connect to at least one of nine broadband providers. In comparison, broadband coverage in Vermont overall is only 89 percent, according to BroadbandNow, a website that helps consumers find and compare internet service providers in their area.

Manchester Center's download speeds average 82.7 megabits per second — more than three times the state and town average of 25.2 mbps.

The broadband system in the town of Manchester has grown in the past 10 years, though there are still underserved areas, said Town Manager John O'Keefe.

"The majority of Manchester is connected, and those connections are getting faster and more affordable," O'Keefe said. "Broadband and cell service are both really important to the modern economy."

Broadband refers to high-speed internet access, such as fiber optic, DSL transmitted over telephone lines and  cable modem acquired through cable TV operators.

But other parts of the state, many of them rural communities, are left by the wayside on the internet highway.

Within Bennington County, BroadbandNow said the least connected town is Readsboro, in which 97.4 percent of the broadband coverage is dependent on only one provider. If something should happen and the service goes down, customers in that area won't have any other options, said BroadbandNow spokeswoman Ana De Castro.

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"Having two or fewer providers in an area is a situation that we have seen played out across hundreds of cities in the US," she said. "This creates a duopoly of sorts, with both providers being able to increase the prices consumers pay for subpar speeds, as well as reducing the incentive to improve existing services."

BroadbandNow says its reports are based on Federal Communications Commission data, which Internet service providers are required to submit to the agency twice a year, with the latest being this January. Providers also directly provide their data on BroadbandNow's website.

As for download speeds, Pownal posted the slowest among county business establishments, averaging only 8.55 mbps. Readsboro has the slowest among residences at an average of 4.43 mbps.

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The fastest city in the U.S. is Nine Mile Falls, Wash. with 922 mbps, followed by Hoschton, Ga. with 732 mbps and North Arlington, N.J. with 672 mbps.

The FCC defines broadband internet as a minimum of 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload. However, approximately 27 percent of Vermont addresses lack access to this level of internet service, according to the state Department of Public Service.

State representatives are currently discussing a proposed law, House Bill 513, which aims to expand broadband service to the "last mile" – hard-to-reach locations with low population density.

"As Vermont is a rural state with many geographically remote locations, broadband is essential for supporting economic and educational activities, strengthening health and public safety networks, and reinforcing freedom of expression and democratic, social, and civic engagement," the first section of the draft bill states.

"The accessibility and quality of communications networks in Vermont, specifically broadband, is critical to our State's future."

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The bill recommendations most crucial to residents of southern Vermont, said Rep. Laura Sibilia of the Windham-Bennington District, include hiring a "rural broadband technical assistance specialist" who can help various groups come up with solutions to expand broadband service into unserved or underserved municipalities.

Another is the proposal to establish a grant program that would fund studies on the feasibility of establishing broadband in unserved or underserved areas. The bill has a provision also to look into whether electricity companies can use their utility infrastructure to provide broadband.

"The national carriers, they've covered where they're gonna cover, so the markets are not going to fix this solution for places that don't have adequate speeds or coverage now," said Sibilia, vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Energy and Technology, which sponsored the bill. "We know the providers are not taking care of it in rural areas, and we know that we can't, so here's our first effort at tools to help you do it."

The state, she said, doesn't have the money to bring high-speed internet to the last mile, an undertaking that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The bill proposes to raise money by a variety of means, including grants, loans and bonds.

"We expect that there will be other ideas, obstacles that Vermonters will let us know about, and that we are able to craft new tools or tweak some of the tools that we're putting on the table," Sibilia said.

The lawmaker said she and fellow state representatives are hopeful the state senate will shepherd the bill through and that Gov. Phil Scott would sign it into law this year.

Tiffany Tan can be reached at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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