Could Vermont Become the First State With Universal Broadband?

Could Vermont Become the First State With Universal Broadband?

Could Vermont Become the First State With Universal Broadband?

Gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist wants to bring utility populism to Vermont.

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Christine Hallquist has a plan for universal broadband, and it’s all about the grid.

She’s best known as the first openly transgender gubernatorial nominee, but the former CEO of an electricity cooperative is campaigning on a bold and unprecedented proposal: a mandate requiring electric utilities to hang fiber-optic cable across their service areas.

If successful, her plan would bring affordable, modern connections to every home and business in Vermont—an extraordinary outcome anywhere, but especially in an overwhelmingly rural state. Since utility companies are tightly regulated in the public interest, this infrastructure deployment would starkly contrast with the dominant American model, in which private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon are free to discriminate against consumers if it helps them make more money.

Hallquist’s model could also benefit the existing electrical grid, making power distribution more efficient and taking fuller advantage of renewable energy sources. Politicians often treat utility equity as a wonky footnote (if they even bring it up at all), but it has deeply human consequences, and Hallquist’s campaign is a test flight for integrating creative solutions into a broader vision for social justice.

Hallquist is fighting an uphill battle against Republican incumbent Phil Scott, whose approval rating has tumbled in recent months. Recent polling has him up somewhat, but with a wide degree of voter uncertainty, Hallquist has a real shot at becoming Vermont’s next governor. Regardless of the election’s outcome, her vision for a more equitable and democratic model of broadband service is worth considering.

Evan Malmgren: You’ve put universal access to fiber-optic cable at the center of your campaign, but you also support programs like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, investing in tuition-free college, and building renewable energy to address climate change. How does universal fiber relate to other structural social problems, and how do you sell connectivity as an urgent political issue?

Christine Hallquist: I spent 10 years on the technical advisory commission for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Looking at rural America, with aging demographics, flight to cities, and increasing rates of poverty, what we’re seeing is the same thing we saw in the 1930s when the cities had electricity and rural America didn’t. FDR signed an executive order to get electricity to all of rural America, because otherwise it wasn’t going to happen.

I live in rural Vermont, and I have a copper connection. Every time it rains, you’ve got to reset your modem four or five times. That’s the story in rural Vermont, where two thirds of the population lives. It directly relates to people’s lives—fiber is the tool, it’s the method to make a better life.

Today, it’s very clear that there’s a digital divide. You can’t build a 21st-century economy on copper infrastructure, and if we put more food on the table, we’re not going to fight over scraps. That’s where you roll into the fiber plan.

EM: Public or utility-owned broadband is often criticized for a lack of profits. Should profit be a guiding force for distributing Internet access?

CH: I think a reasonable profit, but let’s talk about why this model works. If we get an electric wire down, we send a bucket truck to restore it. Then the telecom company has to send their own bucket truck. We’re paying twice, so clearly having one company, one infrastructure, is more efficient. A telecom company has to make a really good rate of return, but a regulated utility can live on a much lower one.

It’s cheaper with a regulated-utility model, and we’re already doing that. I started back in 2003; we have 2,800 miles of distribution line with about 600 miles of fiber. So it’s not new. A utility gets a regulated territory in exchange for carrying out the public policies of the state, so we have the right to tell them to do this, but I know my coop and the other coop in the state were interested anyway. Hanging fiber in the electrical space, using their poles and equipment, that makes it less expensive. There are all kinds of savings.

EM: So you’re not talking about completely cutting out private telecoms, because they would essentially lease fiber from utility companies, is that right?

CH: Yeah, that’s a very good point. It’s a regulated utility, so the responsibility ends at the premise, and then it’s open access for any telecom provider.

EM: Do you expect opposition from legacy providers?

CH: I talked to our legacy provider beforehand, and they’re losing so much money on infrastructure they’re happy to get rid of it. In our state, people are disconnecting landlines at a rate of about 7 percent per year. Landline is toast. Will we get some resistance? Maybe, but some telecom companies already provide fiber in the state, and we’re not going to compete with them. It’s against the law to use regulated monies to compete in unregulated space, but I certainly think those providers would happily sell their infrastructure and focus on end services.

EM: On the municipal front, Vermont is also home to Burlington Telecom’s all-fiber network. It’s often held up as the poster child for failed city-owned broadband. It never turned a profit, defaulted on a $33.5 million loan, and about a year ago the City Council approved its sale to a private, Indiana-based firm. What does this say for the potential of municipal broadband?

CH: Burlington Telecom was using a separate infrastructure, hanging fiber outside of the electric space, and you had this whole set of extra labor that you had to pay for. You were duplicating efforts. It’s very expensive to keep a separate infrastructure.

EM: The Communication Workers of America has notably opposed a number of public-broadband projects, since local operations have difficulty turning a profit and often can’t pay as well as large legacy providers. How do you get unions on board with your plan and ensure that utility technicians can earn competitive wages?

CH: This is going to be done by first-class linemen. The existing providers are cutting benefits back, but utility workers do very well, and they should. In my company, 18 of the 20 highest-paid employees were line workers. So of course the Communication Workers would want to go work for an electric utility, because their benefits are strong. If they stay with a telecom company, it’s going to continue to get worse because the revenues just aren’t there.

EM: In some places, municipal or public-utility broadband projects have been leveraged into smart grids. I understand that there’s a smart grid in Vermont. How does laying fiber along the existing utility system feed back into basic electrical services?

CH: We were actually one of the first electric utilities in the nation to roll out the smart grid. We put out smart meters in 2005.

But now you’re getting to my top goal in life, which is to solve climate change. We have to electrify our economy, and the solution is: get a solid fiber connection to every home and business, send price signals to appliances, install electric storage, and make strategic grid investments in order to enable renewables. Part of this is also building a high-voltage grid across the country so that we can move renewables around. The idea is that, as the sun moves west we can move the energy east, and vice versa. Wind production in the Midwest is twice as productive as it is here in Vermont, and wind out on the ocean is even more productive. We can get to 100 percent carbon-free in Vermont, but it’s going to be much more resilient and robust if we can involve all of North America.

Look at the history of humankind. Whole civilizations have risen and fallen based on energy. Energy is the basis of our economy.

EM: Vermont recently became one of four states to enact state-level net neutrality protections, and is now being sued by practically the entire broadband lobby. What do you see as the role of state governments in defending that principle?

CH: I’m running because I’m so frustrated with the direction our country is taking, on this and many matters. Many states want Medicare for All, want to protect migrants and immigrants, don’t like the federal direction on LGBT rights, and want net neutrality. If elected governor, I’ll be working with other states to build a firewall to protect us. Net neutrality is critical to the future of democracy and the future of our business. So we’ll fight together to solve that problem.

EM: You mentioned LGBT rights. Most of your national coverage has centered your identity as a trans woman. Has that recognition been helpful and empowering to your campaign, or does it distract from other issues?

CH: It’s helpful because it’s free earned media, but Vermonters don’t really care. They want to know what I’m going to do for them; they don’t care if I’m transgender, so it’s not a negative or a positive, it just is. From a national standpoint it’s historic, but the historic part for Vermont is that we’re going to beat an incumbent governor for the first time since 1962.

EM: Still, given the political climate—the Trump administration recently moved to eliminate the legal transgender definition, threatening to legislate trans people out of existence—do you have a parting message for trans people?

CH: I have a message for trans people, which is that Donald Trump is going to have to go through me. If I become governor, I plan on making him very uncomfortable. People need to know that the first thing Adolf Hitler did in 1933, the first group that he sent to the concentration camps, was transgender people. It’s the classic work of a despot, and when you try to wipe out whole communities, we should all be nervous, because it’s not going to stop.

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