The Vermont Department of Public Service released its most recent 10-year telecommunications plan earlier this month, once again prioritizing Communication Union Districts (CUDs) as the key to closing the digital divide and connecting the 51,000 households that remain unserved and underserved throughout the state.
The nearly 400-page report outlines a community-centered plan to deploy infrastructure providing 100 megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical broadband across the state, with capabilities to increase speeds when demand warrants it. The plan maintains that the two main ways to get there are via partnerships and fiber.
The report - which was developed in partnership with CTC Energy and Technology and Vermont-based Rural Innovations Strategies, Inc. - details the importance of optimizing the power of public-private partnership in maintaining that balance.
The plan comes off the heels of the state legislature passing H.B. 360, a $150 million broadband bill which was funded by the federal American Rescue Act Plan, in May. The bill, now Act 71, created the Vermont Community Broadband Board and tasked the board with helping to fund and organize the deployment of broadband infrastructure for Vermont's nine CUDs.
CUDs were created in 2015, when the state legislature passed a law allowing two or more towns to join forces as a municipal entity and build communication infrastructure together. The hope was that CUDs would prompt local areas to assume responsibility and control over the broadband solution in their areas by collaborating with ILECs and ISPs. They succeeded and have been rapidly gaining steam over the last few years, with, for example, some DV Fiber currently working to serve upwards of 20 towns in the Southeast corner of the state, and NEK CUD working in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom to serve more than 50.
What the Next Decade Holds
The framework for this 10-year plan is based on the state's strategy to focus on supporting and funding CUDs, stating these districts “are the best vehicle for bringing broadband to the last mile, where private entities have seldom or never been willing to build.”
The overarching goals of the plan are as follows:
Bringing every currently unserved and underserved on-grid Vermont home access to 100/100 megabits per second (Mbps) broadband that can be scalable to faster speeds as demand warrants
Leveraging residential fiber deployments into better mobile voice coverage along key roadways and in small communities
Ensuring that telecommunications systems are resilient, redundant, secure, and futureproof for commercial, consumer, and public safety needs
Facilitating competition and choice of multiple Internet service providers at the majority of premises in the state
Promoting local input and oversight in the direction of future use for publicly funded broadband infrastructure through empowered regional Communications Union Districts
Leveraging fiber broadband expansion to ensure public safety has access to reliable and redundant communications capacity
The report recommends that the path forward to achieving these goals be by funding CUDs through multiple phases that ensure accountability and support. Funding would be contingent on the CUDs passing every premises and complying with best practices for network standards.
“High-speed broadband is not a luxury, but a foundational category of infrastructure that Vermont policymakers have determined needs to extend down every Vermont road, past every business and every home,” the report states.
According to a VTDigger article, there have been criticisms that the plan lacks specific steps and a timeline for successful implementation.
“The first thing we need to do is get funding out to these CUDs,” Christine Hallquist, executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, told VTDigger.
While the future of Vermont’s digital divide is in the hands of the Vermont Community Broadband Board and the CUDs that its supporting, this plan and the passing of H.B. 360 show the state is serious about turning the unprecedented flow of federal relief funding into a real long term investment in broadband infrastructure with community priorities at the heart of the build out.