Monday, June 18, 2018

Vermont wants an economy based around remote workers, but can its infrastructure handle it?

The Vermont legislature recently passed and Governor Phil Scott signed legislation that would pay $10,000 to qualified individuals who can work remotely for an employer and want to live in Vermont. The program, entitled the "Remote Worker Grant Program", provides each recipient with $5,000 per year for 2 years and will be awarded on a first come, first serve basis.

The legislature has allocated $125,000 for FY 2019, $250,000 for FY 2020, $125,000 for FY 2021, and then $100,000 thereafter with no specification on how many grants can be awarded each year. It is not clear how much of the funding will be used for the administration of the program, which will reduce the amount available for awards.

According to a WBUR (NPR affiliate in Boston) interview with Joan Goldstein, commissioner of the Vermont Office of Economic Development, there have been many inquiries into the program and many are certainly interested. There was however one question that she sidestepped that I feel merits further inquiry.

The question of whether or not Vermont's infrastructure can support an economy based around remote workers is important. Right now, much of the state lacks access to high-speed internet. Ms. Goldstein contends that most downtowns in the state have access to high speed internet, as do many of the co-working stations. It seems to be assumed that if a worker moves to an area without high-speed internet, they will be forced to commute to a downtown office in order to work, thus removing one of the advantages of being able to work from a home office.

She acknowledges that work needs to be done in order to help the more rural parts of the state and there is evidence that Vermont is working to address this issue. In 2015, Vermont was the largest recipient, per capita, of federal funding to help ease the digital divide and, in an attempt to expedite the process, the state has enacted legislation that allows broadband providers to bypass local review when building broadband infrastructure.

Despite the state's best efforts, the challenges of getting universal broadband in Vermont remain. Last year, Michael Schirling, Vermont's Commerce and Community Development Secretary, estimated that it would cost "about a half a billion dollars" to get broadband throughout the state. In fact, Schirling expressed concern about whether or not Vermont's telecommunications infrastructure could handle an influx of people moving into the state while town officials throughout the state felt that the lack of communications infrastructure has contributed to the population decline that much of the state is seeing.

For this program to be successful, workers have to be able to successfully work remotely from almost any portion of the state. The current state of broadband infrastructure in Vermont excludes some of the most economically disadvantaged communities from being able to reap the potential benefits that this plan may have. This plan does little to help disadvantaged rural Vermont communities if its recipients are congregated in the few communities that offer high speed internet.  While this legislation is a step in the right direction, it should also serve as a reminder of what is possible in a rural economy, if we adequately invest in infrastructure.

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