Roper: Auditor’s report shows just how bad our lawmakers screwed up the broadband buildout

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State Auditor Doug Hoffer just released a 12-page report about how the cable broadband expansion effort is going two years and over $150 million into what is anticipated to be a $600-$800 million project. It’s about what you would expect from a massively bureaucratic, multi-layered government system with a myriad of players all chasing their piece of the money pie.

By Rob Roper

The headlines two years ago read, “Lawmakers skeptical of Starlink solution for broadband problems.” This was when hundreds of millions of dollars began pouring into Vermont to deal with the pandemic and we were seeing all sorts of stories about kids forced to attend school remotely from homes that didn’t have adequate or any internet service, especially in rural areas of our state. It all highlighted the idea that internet access today, like electricity before it, has become a necessity, not a luxury, in our modern society.

Starlink is the low earth orbit satellite-based high speed internet alternative to cable. All one needs to gain access to the service is a satellite dish, which the purchaser can set up on their own with no training required. In 2021, the start-up equipment cost $499 and the monthly service charge was $99. (Today, with inflation, it’s $599 and $110), which means that for less than $100 million, we could have fully paid for 50,000 rural, low-income Vermont households to get Starlink high-speed internet access installed, and their service fully subsidized for five years, just as soon as the dishes could be shipped and delivered.

The attitude of most legislators regarding Starlink at the time are well summed up by this quote from Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), “I have less than zero interest in facilitating or seeing the state facilitate that.” (VTDigger, 3/7/21)

Instead, Sibilia and her colleagues opted to go with their own complicated plan to install cable to “the last mile” of every dirt road in the state. As was noted at the time, such hook ups can routinely cost as much as $20,000 per household, and that does not include the in-home equipment and monthly service charge. It would also take years to complete. This government-run plan was to be executed by multiple state and regional bureaucracies comprised of a Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB), and ten (so far) Communications Union Districts (CUDs), which represent over 250 separate municipalities.

What could go wrong?

Well, the State Auditor Doug Hoffer just released a 12-page report about how the cable broadband expansion effort is going two years and over $150 million into what is anticipated to be a $600-800 million project. It’s about what you would expect from a massively bureaucratic, multi-layered government system with a myriad of players all chasing their piece of the money pie.

Hoffer and his office lay out 10 potential risk areas contributing to this mess.

Risk 1, according to the report, is a potential lack of funding in 2024. Given the fact that we have already spent the bulk of $150 million setting up these CUDs and are expecting multiple hundreds of millions more in federal funding from things like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment (BEAD) program, this seems pretty shocking.

Risks 2 & 3 are the same realities all other aspects of our economy are dealing with as well: supply chain issues limiting access to necessary construction materials and an acute shortage trained labor necessary to do the work. So, even if the money does materialize, there is a strong likelihood that many rural Vermonters still won’t get access to high-speed internet any time soon due to lack of labor and materiel.

Risk 4 the Auditor describes as, “The Tension Between the VCBB Supporting the CUDs and Ensuring They are Viable Risks Allowing Any Weaknesses in CUD Business Plans to Persist and Deepen.” And Risk 5, the “Reliance Upon CUDs with Varying Levels of Expertise and Capacity May Delay Broadband Service to Some Vermonters, Lead to Increased Spending, and Establish Inequitable Policies and Access.” This seems like a polite way of saying the players here are in many cases incompetent and ill equipped to do this job.

Risk 6. “With the Exception of the Early VCBB Fiber Purchase, CUDs Have Not Been Partnering for Procurement of Goods and Services, Risking Higher Costs and Inferior Outcomes.” Again, the project is not being competently managed.

Risk 7. “Statutory Confidentiality Provisions Shield Some CUD Decision-making from the VCBB, Policymakers and Residents of the Member Municipalities Despite Receiving Tens of Millions in Public Funds.” So, the actions and spending decisions of these decidedly incompetent regional organizations is neither transparent to the public or the board tasked with overseeing their activity. Well, that doesn’t sound optimal, does it? The report cites instances of contract provisions that are not being made available for public inspection as including: “Proposed pricing plans, Requirements around public access programming and other content, and Service quality expectations.” Yup, those are all things we should probably know about.

Risk 8. The program is supposed to help low-income Vermonters afford high-speed internet, but never defines what “affordable” means. Or, “Lack of Affordability Definitions and Requirements Threaten to Reduce Service Connections, Undermine CUD Business Plans, and Create Regional Inequities.” This is what we’re paying for, folks.

Risk 9. The program has and is open to conflicts of interest. “The Firm the VCBB Employs to Evaluate CUD Business Plans Has Also Consulted for a CUD and Does Not Appear to be Prohibited from Consulting for Others, Raising Conflict of Interest Risks.” Stir this in with the risks of mismanagement and lack of transparency, and oh what fun we can have!

And Risk 10. The way the state set them up, the CUDs may not qualify for federal BEAD funding. Whoops.

Now, full disclosure, my household got high speed cable internet service about 18 months ago. It only took 20 years and over a dozen neighbors kicking in a few thousand bucks each to convince the cable company to run a line the mile and a half we are from the center of town. It works great. But if in 1999 when we moved in here a Starlink option were available on day one — as opposed to option B of waiting decades for cable — we almost certainly would have gone with Option A.

For low income and rural Vermonters who need help accessing high-speed internet now, your politicians chose Option B for you. Enjoy the wait. And for all you taxpayers out there, sleep well knowing that they chose the most expensive, least efficient option available — that you get to pay for!

Back in 2021, then Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte) justified this historically bad decision, saying, “We think this technology is too young for us to actually consider it as a viable solution in Vermont.” Well, given that less than a year later when Russia invaded Ukraine, bombing that country’s infrastructure to rubble, the folks at Starlink basically flipped a switch and provided the Ukrainians with instant, nationwide high-speed internet service. So, Mike, et al, you thought wrong.

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

12 thoughts on “Roper: Auditor’s report shows just how bad our lawmakers screwed up the broadband buildout

  1. Rob Roper & John Klar are True North’s best contributors, consistently high-quality and well researched. Keep up the good work!

  2. And these are the good guys!

    Keep digging you’ll be stunned……..what every happened to EB-5? Hush money works great huh?

  3. Screwomg everything up is what our leftist overlords are great at. Not to mention they can do it more expensively than anyone else. One has to wonder if the lemmings who vote for them are the same? And do they all work for the state government?

  4. Why this need for such expensive internet infrastructure for most people? I have DSL and it works fine.
    I watch videos and can listen to music and talk. It does not have extreme high-def pictures, so what?
    As far as having basic internet service, the infrastructure is already there. Cable TV is available almost everywhere too, and it’s much faster than DSL.
    They make it sound like having Rolls Royce level service must be a human right.
    It does keep people hypnotized in a trance. The state shouldn’t be involved.
    Amusing us to death, and controlling our thoughts is the real value of having ultra high speed internet for everybody, as a “human right”. Nuts!

  5. The argument from the demoprogs who are somehow no-doubt benefiting from this largess is that we are already into the fiber plan and we can’t back out now. These leftists all hate Elon Musk with a passion (even though he is an immigrant from Africa), and will do anything to avoid putting money into his pocket, even if it makes the most sense for the taxpayers and end users of the system. The left destroys everything it touches. Thank goodness we there is one decent progressive elected official who does his job objectively and thoroughly…our Auditor, Doug Hoffer. Meanwhile our health care, border policy, law enforcement, land use regulation, public education and opioid problem are also being handled by demoprogs, and with similar outcomes. This is sounding like the debacle in Burlington a while back with the progressive mayor Kiss completely mismanaging the fiber optic build-out, putting the city’s bond rating in the mud…

  6. These are the same liberals idiots that are trying to kill us with the unaffordable heating act, and a 3 day waiting period to buy a gun to prevent suicide. Right after they passed an assisted suicide law. These people really need to go. Why do people keep voting for these morons? I have given up on this socialist state and looking to move to New Hampshire.

    • The troubles began a few days after Woodstock – when the future Hippy Elite slouched eastward in drug-induced hazes and began hanging out in Chittenden County.

      They’ve been beckoning others like them to come here and start using their drugs to imagine they’re still living where they came from (e.g. California-nye-aye etc.) – only, it’s here.

      A lot of them inherited $ of course. This only increases their chances for election. Witness the new occupant of the sole Vt. congressional seat.

      To them, poor persons are those who have to buy $3.45 wine at Aldi’s (like I do – I am not poor): they cannot imagine the ex-farmers’ children seven to ten generations in without farms anymore who want to stay here & hold onto existence avoiding state police in hollows. Or the farms that have shut down due to encroaching gentrification, caused in many cases either by them or by their rent-holding friends waiting to throw up the wind towers to send virtue-signal symbolic electrical power to Connecticut (no: they are NEVER to blame, these Dr. Spock zombies).

      I’m too old to move, so unless my daughter puts me up in the Massachusetts I left almost a half century ago I’ll probably expire here.

      You, however: good luck to you. I can’t blame you.

  7. Back in the day… quite a while ago in fact… in 1995, a company called Sovernet was Vermont’s first private internet supplier. They capitalized with about $100 thousand, started small, and became Vermont’s largest privately held telco company operating state-wide. They are known today as First Light.

    When Sovernet started, the State, in its wisdom, decided to provide government sourced internet service. It was known back then as The State capitalized with about $10 Million… and, you guessed it, couldn’t compete.

    The irony is that the State took tax dollars from private businesses like Sovernet and competed with them using the private business’s money. And the State still couldn’t compete.

    Today we have OneCare, which is now under the control of UVM Medical Center. Need I say more.

    We have a K-12 public education monopoly that charges more to educate a first grader than it costs to send a student to Castleton State for a year of undergraduate studies, including room and board. And for that, 60% of high school graduates can’t meet minimum reading, writing, math and science standards.

    And today we have an $8.4 billion State budget equaling almost $13,000 in spending for every living Vermonter, while our neighbor, New Hampshire, has a budget equaling less than $5000 per capita. And while Vermont ranks 3rd in highest taxed states, NH ranks 34th. And still, “New Hampshire is consistently safer, has a higher standard of living, lower welfare and poverty rates, and has better health outcomes.”

    But hey, since when did common sense have a place in Montpelier?

    • You forgot to mention the out of control crime rates due to their defunding the police or the fact that we the people pay for all the homeless to live in hotels making us the second in the nation per Capita for homelessness. You also forgot to mention that they are trying to get rid of cash bail and decriminalize drugs here which will result in even higher crime and more homeless drug users/criminals.

      • I think I mentioned that stuff too.

        “New Hampshire is consistently safer, has a higher standard of living, lower welfare and poverty rates, and has better health outcomes.”

        But what I didn’t mention was what to do about it… because I don’t know what to do about. Except to take care of myself and my family the best I can while everything implodes.

  8. Does the surprise anyone? Total Democrat incompetence? Fiber cable is great but hugely expensive…plus, laying any kind of “dedicated” line, be it copper or fiber…is ANCIENT technology! As Mr. Roper says, Starlink ALREADY has tons of low orbit satellites that give decent high speed, all over. Second? There is ALREADY VT WIRELESS connection here….5G wireless is at hand. And these can be the same exact towers that provide all the CELL PHONE service already! SO the hippies, Libs, Dems, Socialists, enviros… can’t complain about ugly CELL TOWERS – because they already USE them – for their OWN cell phones.

    What a boondoggle….the entities that push fiber cable are the ones that benefit financially, from laying it $$$$$$. WAS THERE EVER a Democrat led commission to compare Starlink or Cell Towers with soon very fast 5G -versus massive costs of “dedicated” lines over a ton of rural mile roads? Nope!

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