Christine is no stranger to broadband. She served for nearly 20 years at Vermont Electric Cooperative — first as the COO and then as CEO.
Christine also served as principal CEO of Cross Border Power, and then as an administrator for NEK Broadband and Lamoille FiberNet.
She currently served as the executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board — a position she has held since July of 2021.
Christine holds an associates of science in electrical, electronic and communications engineering technology from Mohawk Valley Community College.
Drew Clark: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Broadband Communities Ask Me Anything! With Christine Hallquist. I am Drew Clark, CEO of Broadband Breakfast and here to spend an hour with Christine Hallquist, who is the executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board. Welcome Christine.
Christine Hallquist: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Drew: Well, it is, believe it or not, a very hot month in the nation's capital and around the world. We've learned that it's the hottest day on record July 4th in the world's history just 10 days ago. But it's hot in terms of Broadband as well, because there's lots of Broadband events happening. We have a very exciting ready or not live show with Gigi Sohn that's happening on Monday, Scott Woods will be your host. If you have questions, send them to Ben@ready.net. I'll repeat that later on Ben@ready.net. And then we've got Where's The Funding Episode next Wednesday, July 19th. And then we have another Ask Me Anything with the state Broadband Director, Valerie Bullard of New Jersey, in two weeks time. But today, let's turn to Christine. Tell us a little bit about the Vermont Community Broadband Board, I think is the name of the organization, and it was created by a special act of the Vermont Legislature in 2021. Tell us a little bit about the history of the board, its creation, Christine.
Christine: Well, I will say it's Act 71, and it was a beautiful piece of legislation. I commend our Legislature for the work they did on that. Vermont had four Governors that basically committed to get people connected, and we've made investments in the past and had grants in the past, and there was a level of frustration that came with Vermonters to say, "When's this really going to happen?". Of course, I've also been at this for a long time, and I recognise that it really is a cost issue and like any other big problem, you stay on it till you solve it.
Christine: This Act 71 created the ability for two towns to join together to form communication union districts. This was, of course, we did not know the funding was coming along the way it is from the federal government. But today we have 216 of our 252 towns are now part of CUDs communication union districts, covering 96% of the underserved and unserved locations. And we also have many of the other towns. The legislation allows towns to form their own plan working with a telecom partner. And the key to this is, when we issue grants to them, they're required to come back with a universal service plan so they can't cherry pick. If you pick, a town comes in and says, we want to do this with our telecom partner, then you've got to serve every place in town has to be served.
Christine: Now, it doesn't necessarily have to be served by a telecom provider, but as long as they have a plan. For example, one of our towns, there were two telecom providers serving those town and they basically joined together to make the commitment to a universal service plan. And it's, I got to tell you, the other thing that's great about this is we look at the engagement for B is each town has to have a primary and an alternate assigned and they're assigned by their town select boards. So our largest CUD, which is North NEK Broadband, they have 57 towns. So they have a governing board that consists of 57 representatives. And that really gave us the opportunity to get tremendous town engagement. So I can't say enough about how good this piece of legislation is.
Drew: Well, we've got a great question from Dan Grossman that's really along these lines and it's a long question, I won't be able to read all of it, but he talks about communication union districts as a unique to Vermont solution to the problem of scale in rural broadband. And he asks what has worked, what has not? You started to talk about CUDs. Could you just drill in a little bit more? Like is a CUD trying to get someone to go and do broadband or is it going and doing it itself? And part of Dan's question is that at least one CUD has decided to go into a public private partnership with the incumbent Telco Consolidated to overbuild and over and operate a fiber network rather than building a new publicly owned network. Talk a little bit about that. Is it public or private or some combination of entities that are running the projects that CUDs have some engagement in?
Christine: These are public private networks. So the telecom, the whole idea behind this is that they're community owned networks. But at the same time we recognise that we don't need to reinvent the wheel here. There's a lot, the telecom companies know how to do this. They have their customer care center set up. They know how to do the designs. So this is a partnership with all of us use. Now, some of the CUDs are ultimately gonna provide their own service as part of their business plan, but there's some are doing white labeling and some are doing labeling directly from the providers. So there's a mix. We have 10 CUDs. We allow them to be autonomous and present their business plans and the board reviews those plans. We work closely as a staff to provide technical and financial advice to these CUDs, but ultimately have, they are autonomous.
Drew: Well, now, a related governmental question here. The website for the Vermont Community Broadband Board is on publicservice.vermont.gov and likewise the Public Utility District is also there. Could you just speak about the relationship between the Vermont Community Broadband Board and the public utility in terms of responsibilities, regulatory authority? What do you guys do, what do you people do when you're regulating or not regulating broadband in the Community Broadband Board world?
Christine: Oh, that's an excellent question as well. I was part of the testimony to help set up Act 71. I'm gonna say this because I actually think the legislature was smarter than I was in this case. I was pushing for this to be done too. I came from the private sector, so a little skepticism for me around the bureaucracy and can we get this done through a state agency but ultimately this was put, the design is that I report to a separate board. That board, I'm appointed by the governor. The governor appoints two members of the board, and then one is appointed by the house, one by the Senate, one by the CUDs. That's the board. So I report to an independent board, but reside our organisation resides within the agency of the Department of Public Service.
Christine: And the reason for that, which I think was another brilliant move, was because if we had to stand up an entire new organisation, we would've lost at least a year. And I will tell you, coming from the outside world into state government, I'm so happy to be working within the public service department because I have all those resources available and we work together. Yes, the public service department has a regulatory side. We are on the development side, but it works very well together, and we have a very good harmonious relationship.
Drew: What's the role of other CUDs communication union districts in efforts such as ECFiber, right? Which is a... Is it a public entity, ECFiber? Talk a little bit about that entity and how it again, relates to these communications utility districts.
Christine: Yeah. ECFiber essentially developed the model a very successful model. They're fifth, we celebrated... Two weeks ago we celebrated. They got their last town connected of 27 towns. They started out, they're a not-for-profit. They weren't a municipal at the time with that. They're not, these are now municipal districts. But at the time, they started independently as a not-for-profit to build their community networks. And they built it with essentially reaching out to investors as well as private individuals to provide funding. It was a very successful model and an example of what could be done so that they were the model that the CUDs were built on. And it really, you hear the story of the, of ECFiber, it really was a great example of people setting what everybody thought was an unachievable goal. And including, there's stories about reaching out to investors.
Christine: Saying we're not gonna do this it's too risk. But they pulled it off with blood, sweat, and tears.
Drew: Yeah, no, wonderful model. And maybe what we'll come back to some of the history here. Christine, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. And I guess I should start off by saying, I feel like I've had a chance to get to know you because of a film that I saw in researching this. It's denial and it's a film by your son Derek, about both climate change and your own personal journey as a transgender woman. Could you talk a little bit about how you personally got interested in electricity, the internet, and the whole set of issues that was in a masterfully way dealt with in this film, Denial came out in 2016, so seven years ago.
Christine: Yeah. Well, I would say looking back, I now see being transgender as a really been a great gift. But certainly when you struggle with it and thoughts of suicide, all things that go along with it, as you're struggling through this journey, it's really difficult. So I knew from day one I was different and I was different. So I became quite the nerd working with electricity. But I was in a Catholic school and I would get beat up by the nuns. I would get beat up on the way to school, on my way home to school. I just got beat up all the time until I got into public school. And the beating stopped at school, fortunately, at that point. But with that, it really, I did have some close friends, but we were clearly nerds and I was really... And my bad experience in school, my father was a great electrical engineer. I used to go to work with him. He taught me so much.
Christine: I didn't realise how much he was teaching me by going to work with him and they, in the evenings, I'd have this wave solder machine available when I was in high school. And I had all these, because he was working in research, I had all these electronic components together. And as long as I logged in what electronic components I took, I gave the wave solder machine. I got to do all this nerd stuff in high school, but I hated school. My father convinced me to go to a tech school. I went to that tech school and came out, I did very well when I got to the tech school, but went to work right away for Digital Equipment Corporation. And they discovered how much I actually knew. So I was a really self-taught. So it was funny, three months after being a technician at digital Equipment Corporation, they said, you're an engineer. And they had me work with University of Massachusetts to get the additional studies I needed, but I've had a thrilling career as a result. And at age 30, I became the global power systems manufacturing manager, become one of the earliest adopters of lean manufacturing in the nation.
Drew: And just this... The global systems power manufacturer. Is this when you got over to the Vermont Electric Co-op?
Christine: Oh, no, no. This was designing power systems for computers. So I start... My point is I started in tech. I could spend hours talking about my great career, but I'll kind of try to short circuit to the important parts. Ultimately because I was an early adopter of lean, I did, became a freelance consultant. I worked with many companies, including Honda R&D of America. I looked at... They hired me to look at the entire process of the automobile from concept to design to manufacturing. Very exciting. But by 2000 I've had a family, I was getting tired of traveling. So I developed local clientele and some of those include utilities. And I had the opportunity to become the engineering operations manager for Vermont Electric Cooperative. And we had, they were in bankruptcy. And they hired me to help them come out of bankruptcy. And ultimately that...
Christine: I got it. I was very excited about getting into utilities because they were a greenfield, they were about at least a decade behind the rest of the world in terms of the application of technology. That's really, we were the first utility in the nation to actually do a GIS of our assets in 2000. Then we eliminated paper maps in 2003. We 2004. I wanna make a point, this is why I love Vermont. Vermont politics works this way. Our Republican governor took me and a few others up to Quebec to listen to the first intergovernmental climate change report, commission report. And then, we were started to focus on climate change way back in 2004. Then took our tour, we took some tours of wind farms up in Gaspe bay Canada. And ultimately that's what really led to my work on the smart grid.
Christine: Which ultimately we started working on that. Over all the years I learned that, we were using radio frequency, we were using all cellular to pull back data. But we learned through the utilities that the only way, reliably and effectively to manage the grid is through fiber optic networks because of its reliability and its low latency. And I can touch more on that if you'd like, but that's really why I'm here today doing what I'm doing.
Christine: 'Cause I know we gotta get fiber to every address to solve climate change.
Drew: Well, I'm kind of a broadband person who's lately got super interested in the smart grid and the electric, and there's no surprise that there's a convergence of these like EPB in Chattanooga, the first gig city. They basically got into fiber because of electricity monitoring and metering and management. And so it's no surprise that electric co-ops are really on the forefront of broadband. And I think what was so fascinating about this film, this documentary of your life, Denial, is the dual story, right? The personal, but also the kind of the smart grid question. And again, this film was 2016, but you were clearly thinking of these issues of the smart grid decades before other people were. And let's talk a little bit about how the smart grid can affect climate change. And let just sort of like, maybe the cheat version is that wind and solar are great, but sometimes the sun doesn't shine. Sometimes the wind doesn't blow. So what do you do if you're running a co-op electricity co-op? You've gotta make sure people have power and you don't have wind and solar. What do you do then?
Christine: Well that's, that of course, that's my, I love talking about this one. So the grid is an unstable system. So that means, within a few milliseconds, the grid can collapse. And part of our, the things we learned back in August 14th of 2003, and there's 50 million people lost power in our country all the way up to Canada and New York City. And I recommend anybody in broadband read about that August 14th event of 2003, because that is an example of why we need the smart grid, a power line sagged in Ohio. And because things happen so fast in the grid, it rippled all the way through the northeast and central of the United States. Because what happens is the grid can fail in two cycles of the sine wave. That's when those collapses start occurring. And that, a one cycle is 16 milliseconds, 16.667 milliseconds, right? So two, you're talking about 30 milliseconds. So many times I do talks and I say if it's not fiber, it's not broadband.
Christine: I'm saying this because cable and, and wireless cannot achieve the reliability and the latency that can be done with fiber. Let me explain how that, why that's so important. Because we built, I led the building of the largest wind project in Vermont, the largest solar project. And if you look what happens in second, millisecond by millisecond of these things, the puffiness of wind will occur in milliseconds and on a wind turbine and this cloudiness that goes over solar happens in milliseconds. So that's important. You've gotta have your grid interactively talking at a high speed with those devices. Then couple this with the fact, as you said, that sun doesn't shine also the wind doesn't blow all the time. You've gotta bring other resources. Now, couple this with our goals to eliminate carbon. Now we've got a huge problem, right? Because today only 40% of the US electric city comes from non-carbon sources. That means we have to increase non-carbon generation by two and a half fold. But then to cover our transportation and heating and ventilating needs, we have to double it again. So we need a fivefold increase. Now, let's talk about what happens when you plug in your electric charger on the grid. And I'm gonna use an extreme example. I'm gonna use the Tesla tractor trailer. The Tesla tractor trailer draws a megawatt, that's a million watts from the grid.
Christine: The average Vermont home during peak is about two kilowatts. One trailer truck is equivalent to 500 homes in Vermont. Plugging into a wire that hasn't been designed for it. And then think about all those people coming home. And plugging in at the same time. You can't do that. You've got to have this interactive discussion. And you've got to say, you know, when the grid's unstable. I'm calling these optional loads need to drop off. And then come back on when the power's available. So it's really important to have fiber.
Drew: So what are Vermont utilities. Including the one you were CEO of for many years. The Vermont Electric Co-op. What are they doing with regard to broadband? Are they players in the broadband game? Do they not need to be? Because there's other. Because clearly in the rest of the country. There's lots and lots of momentum. Where RECs are getting religion on the need to get broadband. And even though some have preferred not to. Hey, telcos or other people will take care of that. They basically kind of reluctantly been drawn into that. So is that the same case in Vermont. Or is it handled in other ways there?
Christine: Well, let me just say that back in 2016. Nobody was thinking about this, right? So in fact, I'll even say 2017. Because I was speaking out as... My board of directors even told me they'd fire me if I kept talking about climate change. So climate change was not on the minds of the electric utilities. It's only the reason, as I said. The reason I got in trouble with my board of directors. Because I made this bold statement that. Hey, the greatest predictor of misery is change. And I promise you in the next 10 years, this is in 2017. We will have enough misery. Where this will be on top of everybody's minds. It was not on people's minds. Even in Vermont, when I ran for governor. Only one in 20 people had it on their list of concerns. But it's clear if you follow the science. What we're seeing today was coming. We knew about it. I'm not a special.
Christine: Maybe I'm smart, I don't know. But I certainly know how to read, right? So this is no, in fact, just two years ago. I spoke to one utility executive about this. Because I'm no longer in the utilities. I ran for governor. They said, come on, Christine, it's gonna be... I said, do you believe we need the smart grid? Not now. I said, 10 years from now? Oh yeah, 10 years from now. But the point being, even if that's saying that 10 years. I came back and said, look, if we're investing money. Let's invest it. We're building a 40-year grid. A 40-year telecommunications network. We shouldn't be thinking five years out or 10 years out. We should be thinking 40 years out. What's the best technology?
Drew: Well, there's an interesting discussion. In the thread for this event. And it's around this whole question of. Is there a requirement for fiber as opposed to wireless? And again, in this discussion thread. I think it's actually Dan Grossman. Who's asking this question here. Which is about. Do we need to insist on fiber? So we talked a little bit about that earlier. From the perspective of the smart grid. But now from the perspective of getting everyone covered. Which is clearly the Biden administration's goal. Is to get everyone covered. With high quality, affordable broadband. Will we make it with all fiber? What's gonna happen in terms of Vermont. And the allocations that you make? I need to check my notes to see how much you're getting. But Christine, maybe you can tell us how much Vermont will be getting. And will that amount of money under the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program cover fiber for every home in Vermont?
Christine: So let me just start by saying. Getting fiber to everyone does absolutely require us working with the private telecom partners. And they've been very cooperative sharing their plans. We're going to places where they're not going to connect fiber. So our total cost to get to the underserved estimates. Is gonna be, this program will be about $650 million. Between our governor and the legislature committed 245 million out of ARPA funds. We got another 229 million. We just got another 30 million. Committed from our legislature last year. You know, we're up and plus some other grants. We pooled together, we're at about 500 plus million. And we're gonna fund the rest through. You know, through these business plans. Through borrowing and municipal bonds. So we have a...
Drew: It's 228 million that you're getting. From the BEAD allocation.
Christine: Yeah, 228.89. So more than two, I rounded to 229. But the, so the point being. The point being, we've got a business plan. To get everybody connected to fiber. But I wanna make sure I throw the caveat in here. You know, we've got off-grid customers. This is our wireline. This is based on wireline. And are we gonna connect, you know. If we've got to go up a two mile road to get to two homes. Are we gonna do that with fiber? Probably not. But in general, you know, for public consumption. For legislative consumption. We're gonna get everybody connected with fiber. From an engineering standpoint. There are going to be custom solutions. But we don't, the reason we don't accept wireless. Because, you know, it's putting a wireless antenna on a hill and thinking you're gonna serve people in Vermont is just not possible. Because we're greater than 80% trees.
Christine: So in the summertime it drops off considerably. And there are so many pockets that you can't get to. So every wireless solution will need to be a custom solution. So ultimately, you know, if it's gonna cost 100. Or 150,000, $200,000 a mile to get to somebody. And we could solve it with a couple of ubiquitous dishes. Point to point RF designed properly for 20 or 25,000. Of course we'll do that. But again, the problem with wireless. It doesn't have as low, you know, you just, you know. You have latency delays. So those few in the end will probably still have. You know, when it comes to the long-term goals. Of solving climate change. But it's like anything else. You try to get to the majority. We set a policy to get to the majority. And then you recognise that that's not gonna hit everything.
Drew: All right, so I wanna ask a numbers question. And then a technology question on this point. We've been talking about fiber versus others. So 228 million from BEAD. You threw around a couple of numbers, 229.
Christine: Yeah, 245 from ARPA, 229 from BEAD. Plus 30 million from the legislature. Plus probably a five or 10 million from other sources.
Drew: Okay, and that will get you to the 650 million.
Christine: That gets you to the 500 plus million. That'll be enough to capitalize these CUDs. So that it can go to the bond market. Or loans to do the rest.
Drew: Okay, now that's enough to get everyone. Or most everyone fiber or?
Christine: 99 plus, 99 plus percent, yes.
Drew: So now for the rest, you know. Obviously there's just some places. That are impossibly hard to get fiber to. So, and you talked a little bit. About some of the foliage issues. The difficulties in a green. The green state of, you know. Of Green Mountain State of getting wireless. What about satellite? You actually referred to low earth orbit in your...
Christine: Oh God, satellite sucks. I've been running Starlink for two years now. So I, you know, I just recently moved to Burlington. Three months ago, so I'm on fiber now. But in order to run Star. In order to be able to have these kinds of discussions. What I had to do was take Starlink. Bond it with some really crappy DSL. And bond it with mobile wireless using a software. It's called Speedify. So what that did is anytime the delay got over 70 milliseconds, it would seek different routes. So I tracked Starlink, you know. On an average day, you would get 300 plus fail-overs. Most of them were in the 100 or 200 millisecond range. But it was noticeable.
Christine: But then some of them were in the 3-5 second range. And Starlink, of course, you know, typical technology. I, you know, I was, I did some new tech starters too. You oversell the technology initially to get your investors. You know, they talked about they're going to get 300 over whatever. Well, that started out with. I had great bandwidth when we started out two years ago. But now it's 30, you know. 30 megabits download, eight megabits upload during the day. And with high latency. So because Starlink requires a radio frequency signal to commute with satellites. You still are limited by the bandwidth of radio. Which has a formula for that. It's called, you know, the total bit rate is equal to the bandwidth times log2 over the signal over the noise. You know, that's the physics you're dealing with. So if you're using wireless. You've got bandwidth limitations.
Drew: We've got a questioner, David Tate, who asks. Have you read the Broadband Technical Advisory Group's. Report on latency, the BTAG report? And this question has been frequently asked. Because it does deal with this question of latency. And making sure we're doing the right things. To future-proof our networks.
Christine: Yeah, I haven't read the report. I, you know, it's, I'm real busy. And got a lot of things to do, but I do. I think I understand latency. Fiber is the best solution for latency. It still has latency issues. Five microseconds per kilometer. That happens because of the reflectivity. That goes on between the fiber and that shell. But at the end of the day. It's clearly superior over cable. And cable is superior over wireless. So that good, we also have a middle-mile network design. So what you want to do from what I understand. From a design engineering standpoint, is have redundant loops and make sure you've got the least amount of distance you can get to each one of your customers.
Christine: Now, you know, we have to prioritise our expenditures. I think, you know, I really recognise Vermont for committing to the lowest latency network. At the same time, we're going to get everybody connected. If I had all the money in the world. Of course I would look at routes and those kinds of things. But we only have 657,000. So, you know, trying to have internet exchanges in the right place is another part. I'm actually reaching out to some folks about additional internet exchange points. But all of that is part of design. I don't know what the report says. I'm just telling you what I know.
Drew: Right, now let's step up to politics for a moment. And the role of politics. And you mentioned that you ran for governor. Now, we need to stop here for a second. This was not, you were not a protest candidate. You were the Democratic Party's nominee in 2018. As I understand it. And, you know, and I had to go back after the documentary. Because there were several places in the documentary where you were interacting with the governor of Vermont. And saying very supportive things about that governor. I had to go, wait a second. Did she run against the governor that she had said these nice things about? So talk a little bit about that. About the, and it was a different governor, by the way. So talk a little bit about what led you to run for governor. And what, you know, what motivated that? And then the fact that after you lost. That was what led you to be appointed to the position you're in now, as I understand it.
Christine: Yeah, so thanks for asking this question. Because I love to brag about Vermont. Vermont politics goes like this. In 2000, we have a Republican governor. Who I think is wonderful. And so he.
Drew: This is the one who beat you in 2018.
Christine: Yeah, yeah. So in 2016, he asked me to be on his staff. In 2018, I quit my job. And became the Democratic candidate for governor. And then in 2021, he called me and said. Would you do this? That's how politics should work. Now, when I ran for office. I did that more for personal reasons. I knew I'd never beat Phil Scott. He's just too good a governor, right? He was, but I did this, I really did this for me. Because I saw the shift that started happening in 2016. With our politics and the way our. It just became so unhealthy. That I started to get very depressed. I went to the Women's March in Washington. I did climate marches in Washington. I marched, I was never politically active before that. I just got fired up and said.
Christine: You know what? For my own soul, I can't sit back and watch the collapse of our democracy. But I was thinking this. But then when I, you know. There was a particular eventful day on January 8th. I think it was 2018. That, you know, the Democratic. The person that was most popular for Democrat. Was a terrible misogynist, just not a very good person. And I said, and he asked me to sign his petition. I said, no way. But I wasn't thinking of running for governor. But I was at the Youth March at the Capitol. And these four young Muslim women. In my beautiful Vermont. These four young Muslim women were doing slam poetry about the intolerance they were getting every day in their schools. And in their communities because they wore hijabs. And I, of course, with being transgender. I could really relate to that. I cried and then I made the and then the irrational decision to run for governor. That's why I ran for governor. And I told the voters when they said. You know, there's a funny episode. If you get to do this, just Google. Oh, I forget her name, comedian.
Christine: Christine Hallquist... Anyway, they, you know, they sent a whole crew. Comedy crew up here because it was so funny. Then that question they asked was. What don't you like about Phil Scott? I said, I like Phil Scott. We just have a difference in policies. And one of those policies was, you know. His whole thing was no new taxes. And I was like, that's a going out of business policy. You know, we need to build a future in Vermont. And the future is broadband. So anyway, it did very well. I'm very pleased with how we did. It's...
Drew: And you were a broadband candidate. I mean, in 2018...
Christine: Broadband candidate, again. Because for all the reasons I described. But from an economic development standpoint. Vermont has a lousy road infrastructure. You know, it's just not a place where you're going to attract manufacturing. So my whole platform was. We've got to build a system to attract high intellectual margin jobs in the state. And the only way we're going to do that is through broadband. So it was an economic development. And a climate change issue. But the biggest issue was economic development. And I did very well with that platform and I was very pleased and had a great time. So, and then of course. The governor asked me to do what I ran on. It's like, now I'm doing my dream job.
Drew: Right, right. So, what, I guess. Kind of from a chronology standpoint. 2018, you ran for governor. This law was passed in 2021. Was there a period of time. Where you were kind of working behind the scenes to get it? Like what was going on on a broadband front in Vermont. Before you became the executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board?
Christine: Okay. So let me just say. Soon as I lost the job. Lost the bid for governor. I went up to Canada. And I went up to Canada to develop a new battery for the grid. 'Cause you can tell my passion is to solve climate change. And the grid, not only do we need a smart grid. We also need a leap in battery technology. So I was working with the University of Sherbrooke. And some others on a porous silicon battery. Which would have had a fourfold increase in storage. And a three time increase in cell charges. So I built a joint venture to get that done. And we did a lot of work.
Christine: And it got to the point where we had to build wafer fab facilities. And we needed $500 million. We were working with the Saudi Arabia government. It's like, okay, this isn't gonna happen. But meanwhile, when it was saying This isn't gonna happen. I started getting calls from the CUDs, Would you be our executive director? So I became executive director of two of the CUDs. And of course I could do that virtually because of COVID. So that's how I got back into broadband. But meanwhile, because of. I have a long history with the legislature. I was asked to testify on legislation. Relating to broadband in the middle of all this. So I continued to keep my feet in broadband. While I worked on this new battery technology. Again, the battery tech, we were unsuccessful. We built 600 samples. We had them out to all the folks. Like General Motors and others. But we couldn't mass produce these things. At a cost competitive price.
Drew: So what happens now? What's the Vermont Community Broadband Board's approach? You've mentioned kind of a large sum of money from ARPA. Kind of you're on the smaller end of the BEAD awards. What are the plans and steps that need to take place? And critically, and let's talk a little bit at least about this mapping exercise, right? And what are some of the challenges, drawbacks. And how we get around those challenges and drawbacks. To truly measuring the real state of broadband in Vermont?
Christine: Well, let me just start by saying. I'll call it we're polishing the poop with this challenge process.
Christine: And I'm saying that because if you look at the root cause of the problem, it's the way the FCC sets up broadband. What we have is we have telecom providers. Anybody in this business, it can be public or private. They report the speeds that you can get as a consumer. They have these advertised speeds, and then it's up to the consumer to prove they're not getting it. Now, that's flawed to start with because you don't go buy a gallon of milk and say, "Oh, I'm hoping I'm getting up to a gallon of milk" and you don't find out what it is till you get home or, I'm buying a gallon of gas. Until the FCC changes that, we're gonna be continuing to try to perfect these maps, but we'll never get them right. I advocate that we change and require telecom providers, anybody in this business and the technology's there, we did it in the utility business, to report monthly on every address in terms of their performance minute by minute.
Christine: You can do that with latency and connectivity. I just wanna start by saying that whole process is flawed, we're trying to work around it. We still have serious problems with our maps. It's an iterative process. We're gonna continue to work through that. There are high concerns because we've got something like 40,000 addresses that we show as E911 addresses that not on the fabric.
Christine: And so we're gonna continue to work that. The BEAD says you can't fund an address if it's not on the FCC maps. I do think the process that the NTIS developed for improving those maps is the best they can do. And it's the best process you could do. But again, we're trying to work around what I think is flawed from the beginning.
Drew: Let's talk a little bit about that process, the challenge process and what Vermont is gonna do to implement your challenge process. You just plugged the NTIA steps. What's so good about it that will help us fix, at least in some measure the problems with the FCC's mapping methodology?
Christine: Well, it's not gonna fix the FCC mapping methodology. I hope I made that clear in the beginning. But that said, I don't like this, I don't think anybody likes this. It's one of those things that nobody likes. Because they're not gonna fund addresses that aren't on the map. I'm a little speaking out of turn on this one. This is my personal opinion. My staff will get angry, the people get angry and say, "But it's the only thing we can do right now, because if we don't do that, we're never gonna get the maps right." So they put this requirement in place, which we're really...
Drew: You're saying you can't fund it, but you need to fund it? Is that what you're saying? You're gonna do it anyway?
Christine: Well, no, we can't. We have to get our maps as accurately possible. The BEAD program says if it's not on the FCC map, we can't fund it. Now that's flawed. And so now I'll get back in line with my staff and on this one, that's flawed entirely. We are gonna find a way to get...
Christine: We're required by Vermont statute to universal service. It's interesting that NTIA requires universal service, however, we know if you can physically see the address and you can't pay for it, then we know we don't have universal service. This is a huge breakdown in... This is where we don't have real truth here. And understand truth as Einstein says, If you had infinite amount of time and you had infinite amount of resource and you had no fear, you'd get to the truth. When I say truth, I'm saying that we have to recognise, we all have to acknowledge that the process is flawed and work with the flawed process. Hey, we work with lots of flawed process. We pay taxes.
Drew: Let's go to some more questions that we've gotten here. One that's come in is about some of the rules. There's a letter of credit requirement that exists for the BEAD program. Do you believe this requirement could place an undue burden on non-traditional and or minority providers? And if so, what changes should be made to this? What do you think of that?
Christine: Yeah. We're very concerned about the letter of credit. Because with the CUDs are a unique device and it really impedes the CUDs. Now, let me talk about the flaws with the letter of credit. And it definitely in fact impacts smaller telecom providers and it favors large established providers. I understand why it's there but I'm gonna talk about the problems with it. And the problems are the fact that you've gotta get a 25% letter of credit, a 25% match. If you take Vermont, where I think we're probably the greatest example of that, the areas we're trying to serve are eight passings per mile. Financially it's a big challenge that's why we need to get so much grant funding because once you drop below four paying customers per mile, you actually can't even afford to pay the operation and maintenance costs if you gave the network away.
Christine: We're in a place that's not served. It's not served because it's financially challenging. And if you've gotta take 25% match, now you've gotta go out and finance that and increase your output requirement, your average customer paying requirement. It goes against affordability 'cause you've gotta pay debt service on that 25% and then add to that you gotta take 25% of your money, put it in a bank account and pay somebody interest on that in order to get a letter of credit. That's money that's not going to infrastructure. That's how the challenges of affordability and the challenges of these letter of credit things go against each other. Now, take a small utility, a small telecom provider or a minority telecom provider, assuming they're small and minority and all that, now they don't have the ability to go out and... You're talking about... I'll take Vermont for example. We were scraping for two or three million dollars years ago, now we have $500 million, so to take and have to come up with a 25% match, that just blows our budget, Vermont budget right out of the water. It makes it extremely challenged with communication union districts, which is the same challenge for minority and small telecom providers.
Drew: You're rattling off these passings per mile, eight passings per mile, four passings, these are obviously very, very rural. Could you just speak a little bit more about the population density issues and are the issues... A lot of the Midwestern did very well numbers wise in terms of the BEAD allocations. And again, Vermont's got this, I know you're a small state in terms of population, but very small location of 228 million. How is Vermont going to get to all of these rural places and people? How does the topography and the population density of the state impact the way you're approaching broadband, Christine?
Christine: Many people don't understand. We start the physics. We know wireless and DSL can't get us there. It's just a physics issue. We have to do fiber. The fact that the state is already committed 245 million and and we've got this good plan in place. We think we can get there. We've gotta get over some of these BEAD challenges and the competitive grant program. 'Cause actually when you look at some of these areas, to think that you're gonna even get people to bid on these areas is a flawed thinking. I've heard that in one of the states, Texas, I think it was, they put a program in place, and there was 40% no bid. Without these CUDs, there'd be a no bid scenario to start with. We are definitely gonna run a competitive program, follow the BEAD. But I'm actually not that worried about how much competition there's gonna be for these areas. 'Cause I just suspect there isn't gonna be any, because it's such low density.
Christine: I've looked at these models for 20 years now. It hasn't changed much. A private investor will go in and go down to 20 passings per mile. With ACAM, they can get down to 12, but to try to get down to eight, it's just not a place a private provider's gonna go.
Drew: Who's gonna build this? Is it gonna be public providers working with the communications utility district? Is it gonna be new entrants? Is it gonna be cable companies that have talked more and more about deploying fiber, seeking funding for areas through BEAD grants? Who's gonna end up building this in Vermont?
Christine: Well, I'll give you an example. Three of our CUDs are working with a company called Waitsfield Valley Champlain Telephone which has been in the state for a long time. They've been committed to fiber. They're doing a great job. We're partnering with people like WCVT, we're partnering with GWI. In one case we're partnering with Fidium Fiber. It is gonna be a public private partnership that makes this happen.
Drew: What are your thoughts on the extremely high cost threshold under BEAD? This is almost like another metric that the main way of funding was allocated was through unserved in Vermont versus unserved in the country. But there's this extremely high cost threshold. Could you speak to that issue, Christine?
Christine: Yeah. Now, we haven't come to that, we just discussed this in an extensive all day session, Wednesday, this and other issues. That's one we haven't come to, we don't have an answer on yet on the extremely high-cost threshold. Conceptually, it makes a lot of sense. At some threshold, it becomes too expensive. And we've gotta deal with it differently. That gets back to my original discussion when I started talking about getting to these areas that are just not gonna be accessible with fiber. We're conceptually talking about where we put that in terms of using that in order to address these special solutions that are gonna be required for those unique addresses. But I do think conceptually it's a good idea.
Drew: I also wanna come back to the co-ops and the role of co-ops. Can you talk a bit about the experience of working as a CEO of a rural electric co-op, and what role do you see them playing in the Vermont BEAD journey?
Christine: Well, if I were Queen of the land [laughter], it would all be done through co-ops. If you look at FDR in 1935 signed an executive order to get electrification. That's how it happens through co-ops. 56% of the land mass is served by electric cooperatives today.
Christine: And that's rural America, and the same thing happened in the '30s where FDR said, "Look, these people are never gonna get electricity. Let's put this co-op," the rural electrification administration put in co-op programs. And I loved being the CEO of a co-op, the electric co-ops and really...
Drew: I could tell watching the film, Christine, it was just incredible to watch you out in the fields, talking about the electricity. And anyway, sorry to interrupt you there.
Christine: Well, let me just finish with that little story. I had a picture in my office as the CEO of electric Co-op. There was a picture of the first pole that was set in Vermont, Eden Mills. There was a group of men, women and children physically setting that pole in 1939. And I thought to myself, wouldn't it have been wonderful to live during those times? Because all these people focused around such an important goal.
Christine: Well, I'm living it. Vermont puts CUDs together, we don't have co-ops, but we have CUDs and we have 200 or 428 volunteers across the state working on boards to make this happen. So we are there. And so the electric cooperative model, I can't say enough positive things of. But I will also say the NTIA is running it similar to how the NRECA had. We have these SBLN meetings, we get together twice a year. It's almost a mirror of how the co-ops were being run. I think we have a very similar structure in place through the NTIA and I can't say enough good things about how the NTIA is running this. I think they're doing an exceptional job.
Drew: Well, and that's an interesting parallel between the state leaders, just the way every state has a co-op and a co-op approach. And in comparison to the state broadband leaders network is a really great one. Could you also just speak to... And I wanna make sure I got this right. Are you saying that the co-op format, the legal structure of a co-op does not exist in Vermont? Is that on the electricity side and the telecom, or?
Christine: No, it's only on the electricity side. The electric co-op... I can tell you this because back in 2003, our board of directors asked me to do everything I can and figure out how I could come back with a business plan to get rural Vermonters served with broadband. I started working since 2003.
Christine: I personally came to that board and said, "You should not do this," because financially it was such a burden. And we were the largest co-op in the state, we were actually the second largest utility. I'm the reason it hasn't happened, [laughter] in the co-op level in Vermont, so I'm not gonna blame anybody on this one.
Christine: Chris, you're looking at the source. I left the co-op and because... And we've had many discussions. I still have strong relationships with the utilities, many discussions about their role. But because Vermont set up this CUD program, I don't think we need the co-ops to do it. Washington electric co-op, the smaller co-op was going to actually provide funding and sources for doing this. But when the CUDs came along, they realised, "Hey, this might be a better model."
Drew: And CUDs were formed just in 2021 or they...
Christine: Yeah. They were formed in 2021. Maybe, I think the 2021, the VCBB was formed.
Drew: But the point being, this is a new thing. This is a new approach to the formation of entities that will serve these very rural areas in Vermont. Right?
Christine: Yes. Yeah.
Drew: We got another question here about the weather. It seems as though exceedingly rare weather events and flooding are becoming more common. Has the potential for climate change influenced any of your strategies to connect Vermont's communities? And this of course is a loaded question because of your long history with climate change. Talk a little bit about your thoughts on where we are and where we can be with better broadband and climate.
Christine: Well, so I'll go back to that. We have to get fiber to every address to solve climate change for the reasons I said earlier in terms of the physics using renewables and plugging in trucks and plugging in cars. Even if we came up with fusion, whatever it is, if fusion became successful, we still have this problem that we don't. If in Vermont, the average solar gain is 4.2 hours a day over a year at 17.5% of the day, the other plus percent that needs to be done through other sources. You don't wanna build an electric infrastructure to handle just all of that. Even if we had cold fusion, not cold fusion, but anyway, even if we had central nuclear plants that were providing the power, we would still need smart grid, because you don't wanna spend all this money building a grid to handle these peak loads and peak generations all over the place.
Christine: Fiber is critical to that. Now, I also want to tell you that, and forgive my bias, this is a result of the fact that Vermont just had an epic flood, we're in the middle of it right now. We're in an emergency. We've got destruction like we've never seen before from flooding. And I, personally, I'll talk about this grocery store in Johnson that I was personally asked by the town in 2013 to find a new grocery store for them. They had two floods in two years that were epic, wiped out the store. They never thought it would happen again. Managed to work with one of our largest developers, put a million dollars to build flood gates in. We built it based on the highest flood levels we've ever seen. This last flood we had a couple days ago was 4 feet over that.
Christine: I think it's the arrogance of humans to think we can... I think this climate resiliency thing is a bit arrogant because we do not know what's coming. Of course, we wanna design greater culverts and better systems and all this, but don't get me wrong here, no matter what we do, if we don't solve this problem, we're gonna have these problems. But yet all of that said, it's real important. We're doing a middle mile design. We're designing geographic redundancy all throughout our networks. Every hub will be fed by two different fiber feeds. We're looking at connections with Canada, Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire. All this good design needs to be built in everything. We need to design with resiliency. But don't think that's gonna save us.
Drew: What specifically will fiber in more places do to help make the smart grid work, and hence to help enable more renewable energy instead? Could you just kind of sum it up in a minute or so, Christine, what's the connection from your perspective fiber making things work better on climate change?
Christine: Well, so now let's talk about responsiveness to outage. I knew it was gonna be good, but I had no idea that our smart grid would help us so much in our responsiveness to outages. Once you get insight into every address, that collective knowledge, I remember when I first looked at these millions strings of data in 2007 when we got our outage management system connected to our smart grid. And I felt like I was, probably the first time someone looked through a microscope, I saw things that I'd never seen before in terms of data patterns. And now we even know that when equipment starts to fail, it's electrical signature on the line changes.
Christine: We put all this together with AI and smart, we can be much better in responding to these episodes. We're much better. We put microgrids in place so we can isolate grids from each other so we don't have these massive outages. I think it's all part of the smart grid is connecting that all together. It helps us be extremely responsive to the climate issues. But as I said earlier, we also need to be solving the root problem.
Drew: Need to do other things. To clarify a question from Dan Smith, again succinctly, what is the difference between a Communications Utility District and a co-op? What's the legal difference and practical difference, if any, between those two?
Christine: Well, a Communication Union District it's a municipal entity. Yes.
Drew: Yeah. Okay. Co-ops of course act like they are non-profit entities, but they've their private sector entities and that's the difference.
Christine: Yes. Yeah.
Drew: Well, Christine, this hour has flown by. We've got a lot of other events coming up, including, as I mentioned at the top, a special ready or not live podcast/videocast live with Gigi Sohn. Ask your questions that you've got. Send them to Ben@ready.net. And don't miss other upcoming events. The, where's the funding episode on Wednesday with Christopher Perlitz and on July 28th, Valerie Bullard, the New Jersey State Broadband Office. I've already mentioned a couple times, Christine, the documentary, Denial. And when I watched, I didn't really know what to expect because it's a documentary of you, your life, but from the lens of climate change and the smart grid, and also your transition to being Christine Hallquist from being David Hallquist. Could you just talk a little bit personally about what you thought of that film? What was it like to be willing to talk about the most intimate aspects of your life, and what kind of reception did you get to the film in 2016? How has it impacted your life since then?
Christine: Well, I must say that my whole family was really brave, that was really my son. My son's a documentary filmmaker. If you look at his history, he has done a lot of other films but this was personal to him. And you saw that scene where he went to China because he couldn't deal with my transgender transition and came back. I had no clue what was happening in my family till I saw that. That premiered in LA in 2016. And of course it was ahead a year, all kinds of movie premieres. I actually was flown to Madrid for the European premiere, but what it was really hard to watch that documentary. I had to watch 10 times before I stopped crying.
Christine: It was so hard to see just how much a struggle that was for the family. I did not know that till I saw the documentary, I didn't see any of it. I didn't know what he was doing. But we did commit to Derek. I still told Derek early on, this is your documentary. If I come out as the evil doer in the end, I will still love you. At the end of the day I want you to tell the truth. Now, my whole family was committed to the truth, which I think is the most important thing we can all do is strive for whatever truth is, whether that's related to broadband, climate change, or gender or anything else. [1:00:22.9] ____, it's really been marvelous for the family to move through that together. We went, did three years of family counseling together. I did five years of counseling in order to get ready to transition. I can't say enough about the importance. I don't care how healthy you think you are, you will benefit from the counseling outside. I wish my family of six siblings had the same opportunity that my children have had in order to go through adult family counseling together.
Drew: Well, that will have to be our last word. Christine, it's been a really honor to spend this time with you and for all of us in the broadband community we hope that you will come back on Monday to see Gigi Sohn and...
Christine: I love Gigi so yeah.
Drew: Wednesday, for Where's The Funding. And next the 28th for the next Ask Me Anything! . On behalf of Christine Hallquist, it's been wonderful. We'll see you next time. Take care.
Christine: Yeah, thank you