Vermont town considers building government network to protect net neutrality

Wikimedia Commons/John Phelan

The view from Main Street in Brattleboro, Vermont

By Johnny Kampis

Public officials in the town of Brattleboro are considering building a government-owned internet network, in part, to protect so-called net neutrality.

The town’s Selectboard tasked Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland with researching options for a municipal broadband network.

The nine-page memo Moreland sent to the board last year included discussions about net neutrality. Moreland wrote that the concept became “increasingly urgent” after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to repeal the Title II communications rules that required fair treatment of internet traffic in 2017. That decision was upheld by an appeals court last year after Democratic attorneys general sued the FCC.

When asked by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) recently if he’s aware of any private providers in Brattleboro blocking websites or throttling traffic, Moreland said he is not.

“I know it’s an issue that in concept is important to people,” he told TPA.

Despite the rigorous rhetoric about net neutrality from some in the months before the FCC repealed the Title II rules, there’s little evidence it was ever a major issue. A TPA investigation in 2019 found scant complaints about blocking or throttling in the year after the repeal.

Tom Struble, technology policy manager at R Street Institute in Washington, D.C., told TPA he’s not heard of a municipality that would cite protecting net neutrality as a reason to build a taxpayer- or ratepayer-funded network.

“It being used as a reason to build a network is ludicrous,” Struble said.

The website Broadband Now reports that Comcast’s Xfinity and Consolidated Communications both cover nearly all of Brattleboro and their services often overlap, giving most residents the choice of two wired providers. This doesn’t account for the high-speed wireless options also available for residents.

Moreland noted in his memo that data he obtained from the Vermont Department of Public Service shows that nearly 96 percent of buildings in Brattleboro can already access the FCC’s minimum broadband standard of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. That is well above the state average of 73.4 percent.

When Moreland first reported back to the Selectboard in October, he said the city would “face challenges because of the nature of service that already exists in town.” He said the city could expect significant pushback from existing internet service providers if it created its own internet system.

Moreland told TPA that after examining the issue, the city has decided not to build its own network, but is in negotiations to be a part of a regional broadband network that is being considered. Precedent for such a network has already been set in The Green Mountain State as 24 towns in east central Vermont created a communications district known as EC Fiber in 2008.

Struble said a regional network could prove costlier as it would likely serve residents in more remote areas of lower population density that are more expensive to connect.

R Street gave Vermont a C grade in its 2018 Broadband Scorecard Report, noting the state has its share of regulatory barriers that inhibit high-speed internet growth.

Moreland told TPA there are no estimates on funding sources or costs of the regional network at this time.

“We’re going to participate in the discussions and see how it goes,” he said.

Johnny Kampis is an investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/John Phelan