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Vermont Wants to Beat the Rush on Fiber Materials, Labor

As prices for fiber-optic cable heat up, Vermont isn’t waiting around for federal funds. The state is also preparing a broadband technician training program that pays students, so long as they share some income if hired.

Executive director Christine Hallquist (front) and deputy director Rob Fish (back) speak during a Vermont Community Broadband Board press conference on Dec. 13..png
Executive Director Christine Hallquist (front) and Deputy Director Rob Fish (back) speak during a Vermont Community Broadband Board press conference on Dec. 13.
Federal broadband dollars could spur heated competition among states racing to secure the necessary supplies and workforce to advance their projects. Vermont is hoping public-private funding partnerships and a new training initiative will ease these strains, officials said this week.

American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) infusions are hitting all states at similar times, creating a sudden surge in demand — much of it for similar materials. By Nov. 2021, roughly half of states had designated ARPA funds for broadband expansion into un- and underserved areas, per Pew Charitable Trusts.

ARPA also restricts recipients to buying their fiber-optic cable domestically, which focuses states’ attention on a limited pool of suppliers, said Rob Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB), during a Dec. 13 press conference.

“Delays for the shipment of fiber-optic cable are approaching one year,” Fish said, adding that the combination of rising demand and domestic purchasing requirements have “resulted in skyrocketing prices, skyrocketing delays and challenges for new organizations to enter the market.”

For example, the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) expects its fiber prices to rise 35 percent by early 2022, per a VCBB press release.

Vermont is hoping to dodge the problem and jump ahead of much of the competition by placing purchase orders now for the materials needed to enable fiber-optic network construction throughout 2022.

That requires the state to go ahead without waiting for ARPA grants disbursements, however, which Fish said could arrive in late February or early March. Recently announced letters of credit allow for cinching deals in the meantime and are expected to come due only after the grant money is in hand.

FIBER-OPTIC PURCHASE


Vermont’s broadband expansion plans rest on Communications Union Districts (CUDs), which are local organizations that bring together several towns to work on extending Internet to areas underserved by private Internet firms. The VCBB was established earlier this year to boost the CUDs with grants, information about funding opportunities and technical support.

The VCBB and CUDs don’t have money lying around for massive fiber procurements – but new credit arrangements are here to help, VCBB announced Monday.

The Vermont Communications Union Districts Association (VCUDA) will purchase about 1,000 miles of fiber using letters of credit from local credit union Vermont State Employees Credit Union (VSECU) and public charity the Vermont Community Foundation. That procurement will supply five of the state’s nine CUDs, while another CUD, the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) Broadband, is using credit from Community National Bank to add another 1,050-mile stretch to the purchase.

The combined deal is worth almost $7 million, and its timeliness and bulk size is expected to reduce costs. The fiber is slated to arrive in spring 2022.

This approach sees CUDs handle construction, keeping it under public ownership, while only hiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate it, Fish told Government Technology.

“So [communities] are in a position of power, which doesn’t happen often in the telecoms industry,” Fish said.

Three remaining CUDs are not participating in the purchase order. ECFiber CUD already has its materials, while SoVT CUD and Otter Creek CUD will rely on more traditional public-private partnership models in which the ISPs build and own the infrastructure, Fish said.

FINISHING FUNDING


VCUDA and NEK Broadband’s cable purchases are expected to meet needs through 2022 and, potentially, into 2023, Fish said.

Still, more money will be needed to fund constructing, maintaining and operating the fiber-optic service. VCBB Executive Director Christine Hallquist told GovTech that the state has $250 million designated for broadband expansion, but likely needs anywhere from an additional $250 million to $510 million to finish.

The goal is to bring fiber-optic broadband to every Vermont resident within five years and could require constructing 10,200 miles of network. The state expects private ISPs will replace their existing infrastructure with fiber, leaving public efforts to focus only on connecting less-profitable, underserved areas.

Fish emphasized the significance of tapping into federal, local, state and philanthropic grants as much as possible to support broadband rollout. Broadband leaders hope to minimize use of loans, because these would add costs that would be passed along to broadband customers, he said.

Part of that push sees the state encouraging municipalities to invest in broadband initiatives. Vermont’s local governments are slated to receive $200 million in ARPA funds.

Local contributions could also accelerate the timeline for reaching full connectivity, said NEK Broadband Executive Director Christa Shute during the Dec. 13 conference. NEK’s various material purchases will enable it to build out a “backbone” of broadband infrastructure to 25 communities in 2022.

“It is along that backbone that towns can contribute using ARPA town fiscal recovery funds to be built in this coming year, rather than being built over the next five to seven years that it will take us to build our entire network,” Shute said.

BUILDING THE WORKFORCE


Materials aren’t the only shortfall that could impede broadband expansion efforts. Broadband leaders also highlighted concerns over securing enough labor to smoothly deliver the project, with Hallquist saying Vermont needs about 205 more fiber technicians.

The state intends to build up a new pool of talent, rather than rely on beating out other states as all work to hire in a tight labor market, Hallquist said.

The state is in the initial stages of creating a training program aimed at helping people with insufficient- or low-income jobs transition into higher-paying fiber-optic technician careers.

Not everyone is able to take time away from work and life responsibilities to undergo what’s expected to be 144 hours of classroom training and 2,000 hours of apprenticeship experience, however. The program aims to recognize this by paying students while they attend the training, and by offering wraparound services like child care, Hallquist said.

“We’re going to pay them while they're being trained, so they don’t get an interruption in their pay,” she said. “The goal is to have it be seamless from payment standpoint, because none of these people can afford to lose even a few hours of pay.”

The state plans to start recruiting students in January 2022 and training them in February.

Graduates who land jobs would be expected to pay portions of their income back into the training program over time, with this money helping offset costs of educating the next cohort. This isn’t expected to be a burden, because the jobs would already pay more than students had made in previous employment. No payments are due from graduates who fail to be hired.

Of course, there’s no previous students to fund the first cohort’s training and so $611,000 is being invested for startup costs, Hallquist said. Vermont Technical College is leading the training efforts and electric utilities are offering their existing training pole yards for student practice.

VCBB is also sending a survey to northeast-area construction firms this week to learn how it can better tailor the trainings to prepare graduates for long-term careers at these firms.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.



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