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Vermont Communication Union Districts Want Federal Assistance to Help Meet the State’s Broadband Goal
As Vermont’s nascent Communication Union Districts (CUD) push to bring universal, truly high-speed Internet connectivity to the more rural parts of the Green Mountain State, CUD leaders are calling for changes in how federal funds get funneled to local municipalities, and for a change in how the federal government defines “high-speed” access.
Enabled by a 2015 Vermont law that allows two or more towns to join together as a municipal entity to build communication infrastructure, these local governmental bodies were formed to help the state reach its goal of having universal access to broadband by 2024. The idea is for CUD’s to operate like a water, sewer, or school district as a way for local communities to build their own broadband infrastructure. Establishing a CUD also puts rural regions of Vermont in a position to borrow money on the municipal bond market and eases access to grants and loans to fund broadband projects.
The formation of Communication Union Districts across the state began to pick up steam in the months following Gov. Phil Scott’s signing of H.513 in June of 2019. That legislation, which set aside $1.5 million to support broadband projects, increased funding to help provide Internet service in unserved or underserved parts of the state. It also created a new Broadband Expansion Loan Program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) to assist start-up broadband providers in developing community-based solutions.
In a Zoom call last month with U.S. Rep Peter Welch, D-Vt., leaders from the state’s nine CUD’s met virtually with Welch to update the congressman on the status of their efforts and what they see as crucial to succeed in fulfilling their mission without burdening taxpayers.
Two New Communications Districts Join Vermont’s Growing Community Broadband Effort
In March, we reported on the formation of Deerfield Valley Communications Union District in Vermont.
That same month, communities in different parts of the state also formed two other communications union districts (CUDs) to improve their local connectivity. Voters in dozens of towns approved the formation of Northeast Kingdom CUD and Southern Vermont CUD during Vermont’s Town Meeting Day on March 3. The two new CUDs are currently undertaking feasibility studies and hope to take advantage of federal and state funding — including through Vermont’s new — to deploy Fiber-to-the-Home networks to all region residents and businesses.
Northeast Kingdom CUD is currently made up of 27 towns in the counties of Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans. The group’s FAQ explains that the district’s goal is to “bring a reliable and affordable, high-speed Internet option (at least 100 mbps symmetrical) to every residential and business e911 address in the Northeast Kingdom. According to VTDigger, the participating communities are in some of the most underserved counties in Vermont.
On the other end of the state, the Southern Vermont CUD is comprised of 12 member towns, all in Bennington County. The fact that all of the towns voted to join the CUD doesn’t surprise local officials, who are familiar with residents’ desire for better connectivity. “I had heard next to no negative comments about the CUD, and mostly people who are really anxious to see their internet situation improve," Tim Scoggins, Southern Vermont CUD Governing Board Chair and Shaftsbury Selectboard Chair, told the Bennington Banner.
Southern Vermont Towns Unite for Communications District
Many Vermont communities are looking to ECFiber and Central Vermont Internet as models for the creation of communications union districts (CUD) to develop regional fiber networks. By combining several towns’ efforts, CUDs bring high-quality Internet service to underserved residents and local businesses.
On March 3rd, four towns from Windham County in the southeastern corner of Vermont voted to create a CUD. The new Deerfield Valley CUD will join the small towns of Marlboro, Halifax, Whitingham, and Wilmington. All four communities are located in mountainous areas where infrastructure development is often challenging and costly. The towns’ joint venture will help finance broadband deployment in the region.
Slow Speeds, High Costs
The towns have been operating on slow DSL connectivity, which is insufficient for things like telehealth services, online education, and local economic development. According to state data from 2018, about 27 percent of all locations in Windham County do not have access to broadband.
Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Vermont Department of Public Service, described how connectivity is an issue in the state because of the high price to deploy the infrastructure:
Our geography is really challenging in Vermont — we are dispersed, we have small towns, we have farming communities — so the distance between service locations is far, so the cost of deploying broadband is more expensive per location . . . Hills are the enemy of wireless technology and it requires a lot more towers, for instance, to bring cell coverage to the same number of people.
More power to small towns