Vermont Communications Union District (CUD) EC Fiber continues mapping efforts in Windsor and Orange counties in anticipation of construction projects there in 2021.
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.
Representing the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District, Ann Manwaring told Congressman Welch: “It’s wonderful to think about the notion that we should be running like an electric utility. But until there’s some federal legislative action that permits that to...Read more
Vermont Communications Union District ECFiber has been experiencing faster-than-expected growth and will hit eight additional towns in 2021 (including Bradford, Corinth, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Windsor). Vermont Digger also reports that it expects to take on an additional $11 million in debt to finance its expansion in the near future, bringing its total debt to $52 million.
Last June's scaled-down Vermont’s Emergency Broadband Action Plan, intended as a fast-moving effort to connect residents in the Green Mountain State in the era of COVID, has seen its first two rounds disbursed since August. The Get Vermonters Connected Now Initiative has granted Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the state a little under $8 million of its available $17 million budget to fund projects which will reach almost 7,500 locations by the end of the year. Of these, more than 3,000 did not have 4/1 Megabit per second (Mbps) service.
Round 1 Winners
The program is run by the Public Service Commission, which does not stipulate any match requirements and establishes 25/3 Mbps as the minimum speed for new services (though it does encourage grantees to aim for 100 Mbps symmetrical connections “where possible”). Community-owned networks are included in the list of winners.
The first round, announced at the end of August, totaled $3,926,650 to serve over 5,800 locations. Of them, the Commission notes, 2,200 lack a connection of 4/1 Megabits per second (Mbps), and 465 premises identified a specific telehealth, telework, or distance learning need related to the ongoing public health crisis. The full list of winners are:
- $351,520 to Mansfield Community Fiber to extend fiber broadband to 676 locations and offset the customer costs for 10 locations
- $171,770 to the NEW Alliance (Cloud Alliance and New England Wireless) to serve wireless broadband to 632 locations
- $1,964,230 to VTel to serve wireless broadband to 3,992 location
- $56,607 to Duncan Cable to extend fiber broadband to 35 locations
- $152,500 to Comcast to extend cable broadband to 77 locations
- $1,117,570 to ECFiber to extend fiber broadband to 394 locations
- $112,453 to Waitsfield & Champlain Valley Telecom to extend fiber broadband to 26 locations
Round 2 Winners
The second round, just announced, totaled $3,991,847 in grant for 1,651 eligible...Read more
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.
Both of the new CUDs plan to conduct feasibility studies and create business plans using funding from the state’s Broadband Innovation Grant Program. When it comes to deploying their networks, the two entities hope to tap into federal and state funds to finance construction. “The...Read more
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
The CUD model minimizes the...Read more
When Vermont passed legislation to establish "communications union districts" in 2015, funding options expanded for regional community network ECFiber. Since then, other states trying to expand access to broadband in rural areas have looked at the success of ECFiber as a possible model. Now, New Hampshire is considering establishing a similar option as a way for local communities to improve local connectivity.
Waiting for Session
Democratic State Senator Jeanne Dietsch from Peterborough has drafted legislation she intends to introduce in the 2020 session. The bill will allow communities to establish "communications districts" to develop broadband infrastructure, similar to the way they band together in order to create sewer districts for necessary infrastructure. The entities are able to finance projects by applying for grants, loans, issuing bonds, and charging user fees, but are not able to tax.
In a recent GovTech article, Dietsch said:
“We modeled it on New Hampshire sewer districts just because that is language that’s already familiar to our legislators, and it’ll be much easier for them to pass it that way than to try to make it look like Vermont.”
The lawmaker was reflecting on difficulties the legislature had passing Senate Bill 103, which allows municipalities to work together for "multi-town bonding projects." Special interest lobbyists, whose job it is to maintain ISP monopolies, leveled their efforts at the bill when it appeared fearing the competition it might bring. Dietsch wants to avoid a similar fight with the communications district proposal, so has carefully crafted the language of the bill.
If passed, the new authority will allow cities to develop the infrastructure in order to work with private sector partners. ECFiber offers fast, affordable, reliable Internet access directly to the public, rather than providing fiber optic infrastructure for Internet access companies to use.
Prior to becoming a communications union...Read more
In late April 2019, the Vermont Public Service Department announced $220,000 worth of grants to bring high-speed Internet service to 220 homes and businesses around the state. The Department awarded ECFiber with about $63,000 to serve nearly 50 homes and businesses in Tunbridge and Corinth, Vermont, according to the press release.
This was a competitive award: 20 organizations applied for $960,000 worth of grants from the Connectivity Initiative, but only a few organizations received funding. The Department explained that they chose those projects that had the most bang for their buck. The Department is spending less than $1,000 on average for each address that is considered unserved or underserved. According to June Tierney, Commissioner of the Public Service Department:
“The Connectivity Initiative enables providers to bring high-speed internet to communities with some of the hardest to serve locations, both in terms of cost and terrain.”
From DSL to Fiber
ECFiber is a community-driven effort of 24 member towns focused on bringing high-speed Internet service to rural Vermont, but for the first few years of its existence, the government continually passed over ECFiber for funding. The organization instead used an innovative self-financing model to raise funds, got some funding from a capital investment group, and later, after the state established the "communications union district" designation, issued revenue bonds to continue to grow. Now ECFiber...Read more
Interest in community broadband and broadband service from cooperatives has grown significantly within the past few years. This legislative session, lawmakers in states such as Vermont, North Carolina, and Arkansas, have decided that they’d like to start contributing to new ways to bring better Internet access to their constituents. This week, Christopher and Jess Del Fiacco, our Communications Specialist, sit down to review some of the most recent state bills that we find promising.
Jess and Christopher talk about H 513 making it’s way through Vermont’s legislature. The bill contains policy changes and financial support designed to invigorate local broadband projects. H 513 was developed after state leaders examined the success of ECFiber, the regional network that brings gigabit connectivity to more than 20 communities in the central part of the state.
The state of North Carolina’s FIBER NC ACT, which relaxes some of the state’s restrictions on local Internet network infrastructure investment, also comes up in the conversation. Christopher finds the bill a promising start to restoration of local telecommunications authority in North Carolina. State lawmakers are also considering another bill that will assist with pole issues.
Christopher and Jess spend some time examining what’s happening in Tallahassee, Florida, where city leaders have decided that they...Read more
Current lawmakers in the Vermont House have rapidly advanced H 513, a bill that addresses both policy and funding hurdles in an attempt to expand broadband throughout the state. After a vote of 139 - 2, the bill went on to the Senate on March 26th.
Looking at Local Models
H 513 recognizes that more than a quarter of the state’s premises don’t have access to broadband speeds as defined by the FCC, 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. The state’s Department of Public Service, which assembled the data, also determines that almost a fifth of premises can’t obtain speeds of 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps. With so many rural communities hurting for access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, state lawmakers are anxious to find tools to expand broadband across Vermont.
Legislators note in the language of H 513 that they believe the FCC’s “light-touch” approach toward expansion of broadband:
“…does little, if anything, to overcome the financial challenges of bringing broadband service to hard-to-reach locations with low population density. However, it may result in degraded broadband quality of service.”
H 513 goes on to acknowledge that grassroots approaches that use local knowledge and support will be the most successful in Vermont.
Lawmakers and their staff have lauded ECFiber as one model that works in a place like Vermont, where many smaller communities can pool their resources and work together to develop a regional network. As the Communications Union District has developed over the years and dealt with funding challenges head-on, it has become apparent that access to capital is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome.
Funding for Innovation
In order to help local projects, H 513 will establish the Broadband Innovation Grant Program within the Department of Public Service (DPS) and the Broadband Expansion Loan Program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA).... Read more