VICTORY, Vt. (AP) — For the 70-or-so people who live in the remote Vermont community of Victory, Town Clerk Tracey Martel says she's regularly frustrated watching a spinning circle on her computer while she tries to complete even the most basic municipal chores online.
“Fast internet would be really good,” said Martel, whose community was one of the last in Vermont to receive electricity almost 60 years ago. The DSL service she has now works for basic internet, but it can be spotty and it doesn't allow users to access all of the benefits of the interconnected world.
About 5 miles (8 kilometers) away as the bird flies in the neighboring community along Miles Pond in the town of Concord, a new fiber optic line is beginning to bring truly high-speed internet to residents of the remote area known as the Northeast Kingdom.
“I’m looking forward to high-speed internet, streaming TV,” said Concord resident John Gilchrist, as a crew ran fiber optic cable to his home earlier this year.
The fiber optic cable that is beginning to serve the remote part of Concord and will one day serve Victory is being provided through NEK Broadband, a utility of nearly 50 Vermont towns working to bring high-speed internet service to the most remote parts of the state.
NEK Broadband Executive Director Christa Shute said the group’s business plan calls for offering services to all potential customers within five years, but given current supply constraints and the shortage of trained technicians, she’s beginning to think that goal isn’t achievable.
“I think our build will take seven to 10 years,” she said.
Congress has appropriated tens of billions of dollars for a variety of programs to help fill the digital gap exposed by the pandemic when millions of people were locked down in their homes with no way to study, work or get online medical care.
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The first of those funds are reaching municipalities, businesses and other groups involved in the effort, but some say supply chain issues, labor shortages and geographic constraints will slow the rollout.
The demand for fiber optic cable goes beyond wired broadband to homes and businesses. The cable will help provide the 5G technology now being rolled out by wireless communications providers.
But there's a bottleneck in the supply. Michael Bell, senior vice president and general manager of Corning Optical Communications based in Charlotte, North Carolina, says the issue lies with supply of the protective jacket that surrounds the hair-thin strands of glass that carry information on beams of light.
Currently, some working to expand broadband say delays in getting the fiber optic cable they need can exceed a year.
“Based on the capacity we’re adding, and the capacity we see our competitors adding, wait times will start going down dramatically as the year progresses and into next year,” Bell said. “And I think as we get into next year, the lead time for most customers is going to be well under a year.”
Meanwhile, there's a labor shortage for installing the cable. Many in the industry are setting up educational programs to train people to work with the fiber, said Jim Hayes, the president of the Santa Monica, California-based Fiber Optic Association.
“It needs to be done now,” said Hayes. “We’re going to need to train probably ten techs for every tech that we’ve got who’s competent to lead them.”
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill passed last fall, says that areas that receive broadband speeds of less than 25 megabit downloads and 3 megabit uploads are considered unserved. To qualify for different federal grants through the infrastructure bill and other programs, most finished projects must offer speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads. Upload speeds differ, but most federal grants have a minimum of 20 megabit uploads.