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The Herald: Welch Visits Randolph, Talks Policy

May 2, 2019
In The News

Congressman Peter Welch spent the day with his Randolph constituents on Thursday, stopping by the Green Light Café, the Randolph Rotary, Gifford Medical Center, and the Green Mountain Glove Factory to talk infrastructure, economic development, and rural internet connectivity.

Beginning with a rural broadband roundtable at the Green Light Café, the 12-year veteran of the House of Representatives began his Randolph tour by asking residents and Vermont telecom providers how funding for rural broadband might be included in a federal infrastructure bill.

“The basic decision we have to make is ‘are we going to treat broadband much like we treated electricity in the 30s?’ That is, to see it as something of a necessity,” he began. “I know the State House has taken great notice of what can be done with the model of ECFiber. Today the discussion is what we can do at the federal level.”

Among those who spoke was Clay Purvis, who serves as director of telecommunications and connectivity for the Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS). For Purvis, the importance of accurately mapping the state’s mobile data coverage was thrown into sharp relief when the DPS found that much more of Vermont was underserved by telecom providers than previously claimed.

“[The mapping project] confirmed what everyone in Vermont knows—that we don’t have good cell service,” Purvis said, noting that the federal government gauges broadband coverage by counting census blocks rather than physical addresses.

This approach, Purvis said, often results in so-called “contaminated” census blocks where only a small minority of addresses are served by telecom providers.

“When one address is contaminated with service then that block is contaminated, [preventing] everyone else from getting [connectivity] funding,” Purvis explained. “Somewhere between 10 and 20,000 addresses that aren’t getting served in Vermont are in contaminated census blocks.” Others at the broadband roundtable pointed to barriers that stand between most low-income Vermonters, particularly senior citizens, and reliable telecom service.

“We are in ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’ here,” said RACDC Executive Director Julie Iffland, who recounted the sight of residents lingering after hours outside Randolph’s Kimball Public Library—an indicator, she said, of flagging internet connectivity in the surrounding area.

“It’s bad because it’s not just a couple places,” Iffland said. “[We’re] neighbors a short hop up the road from downtown and we got nothing.”

Iffland also explained that low-income seniors often pay more than $150 a month for television and internet packages—a steep price for a population that sometimes earns less than 50% of the median income.

Others in the roundtable, such as Irv Thomae, noted that economic development and remote workers require more robust connectivity than what consumers would typically require. “Download speed is about entertainment delivery, it is not about building an economy in a rural area,” said Thomae, who previously served as governing board chair for ECFiber. “If we want people to be able to be part of the modern economy, they need upload speed too. They need it to get serious work done.”

Rotarian Reception

After wrapping up his roundtable on rural connectivity, Welch was received by the Randolph Rotary where he spoke on the contour of national discourse in Washington D.C. and how, despite national politics, communities like Randolph continue to inform his work as a congressman.

All anybody can talk about in Washington, Welch explained, was the recently released Mueller report that investigated Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But while that’s the talk of the nation’s capital, Welch said he found that most constituents remain focused on domestic policies that are more likely to make a difference in their everyday lives—a trait that ties many Vermonters together.

“There’s a lot of people we see during the day we know we don’t agree with politically,” said Welch. “But you know that person cares about Randolph as much as you do.”

Welch also briefly noted the importance of local institutions, many of which are under financial distress such as Springfield Hospital, Southern Vermont College, and Green Mountain College. Supporting such institutions, he said, must be a primary goal for rural communities.

“We have to make a decision if we want to be all in on strengthening our rural communities,” he said. “We have a lot to offer the country.”