Vermont Communications Union District (CUD) EC Fiber continues mapping efforts in Windsor and Orange counties in anticipation of construction projects there in 2021.
Tag: "communications union district"
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.
DVFiber, the nonprofit arm of the Deerfield Communications Union District (CUD), has received a $100,000 grant from the Vermont Public Service Department to conduct pole studies in the towns of Stamford, Halifax, and Whitingham. The grant, as well as an additional $8,000 grant to cover legal and administrative fees, will further propel the CUD down the path to a community-owned fiber network.
Another year of the Broadband Communities annual summit is behind us, and it’s worth revisiting the most salient moments from the panels that touched on the wealth and variety of issues related to community broadband regulation, financing, and expansion today and in the future. We weren’t able to make it to every panel, but read on for the highlights.
Last Mile Infrastructure and the Limits of CARES Funding
The first day of the program saw some heavyweight sessions from Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) on last mile digital infrastructure. For communities at all stages of broadband exploration and investment — whether exploring an initial feasibility study, putting together an RFP, or already planning for the future by laying conduit as part of other projects — partnerships dominated the discussion, with timing and debt also serving as common themes.
ILSR’s Christopher Mitchel helped kick off the conference by moderating the first panel in the Rural/Editor's Choice track, and was joined by Peggy Schaffer from Maine's Broadband Office (ConnectME), Monica Webb from Internet Service Provider (ISP) Ting, and Roger Timmerman, CEO of Utah middle-mile network UTOPIA Fiber.
The group discussed the open access models to start, and the benefits that could be realized from two- or three-layer systems. UTOPIA Fiber has seen some explosive growth and spearheaded significant innovation recently as it continues to provide wholesale service to ISPs that want to deliver retail service on the network. Ting, which recently signed on to be one of two providers on SiFi Network’s first FiberCity in Fullerton, California, also acts as an example of what can happen when we break away from thinking about infrastructure investment and Internet access as one-entity-doing-it-all.
The relative merits of wireless (both fixed and small cell) generated a lively discussion, with the panelists talking about advances to the...Read more
Granite Staters with poor Internet access in rural areas should soon realize the benefit of HB 1111, which just passed the state legislature and was signed into law by the governor. The measure provides for the establishment of communications districts to pursue Internet infrastructure projects in New Hampshire. In addition, the law makes it easier for municipalities to determine which areas under their purview are unserved in order to target broadband expansion efforts and expand access to all.
Removing Barriers, Providing New Tools
Two years ago SB 170 passed the legislature, allowing communities in the state to bond to develop publicly owned Internet infrastructure for the first time. The bill, however, made such moves contingent upon proving that the proposed areas were “unserved” by a connection of 25/3 megabits per second (Mbps). To do so local governments were required to issue an RFI to the existing Internet Service Provider (ISP). At the time we anticipated trouble with existing providers who had a history of claiming service to large areas when the reality was that many were unserved, and it turns out that worry was well-founded: communities reported that ISPs were ignoring requests for information, making it difficult for them to make progress.
HB 1111 changes that. If an RFI to a provider goes unanswered for 60 days, it is assumed the latter is unable to deliver broadband. Municipalities can then come together and form communications districts which have the authority to use general obligation bonds to fund an overbuild of the area and seek out public-private partnerships to provide new service.
“Access to consistent broadband and high-speed internet was a problem long before this crisis and the remote learning, work, and health care environment has only exacerbated those inequities,” State Senator Jay Kahn told news outlets. “As we prepare for the possibility of a second wave, we must take steps that efficiently use public funds to leverage private investment to deliver high-...Read more
In response to the $1.25 billion Vermont received from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, lawmakers immediately began discussing using $100 million of it to bridge the state's digital divide, with fully $45 million going to construction of new fiber networks across the Green Mountain State. But they were quickly stopped short by restrictions set on the monies, which stipulated the strict terms by which the funds were to be used. In the end, the state won't be seeing any construction from these funds. Instead a smaller amount — $43 million — will be directed at immediate relief efforts rather than long-term planning:
- "$13 million in proposed spending to connect Vermonters to broadband internet services. The bulk of that, $11 million, would create a program to be managed by the public service department called Get Vermonters Connected Now [to] provide subsidies to low-income Vermonters who can't afford to use broadband networks already available in their neighborhoods."
- "$20 million to compensate utilities . . . for the cost of continuing to serve people who stopped paying bills due to COVID-19."
- "$7.3 million for the Agency of Digital Services to make it more secure for state employees to work remotely and to upgrade the obsolete unemployment insurance computer system."
- "$500,000 for a "telecommunications recovery plan."
- "$466,500 for local cable access organizations in recognition of the additional coverage they've taken on during the pandemic."
It's possible that federal regulations could change, but in the meantime Vermonters will have to look inward to solve its connectivity challenges.
Vermont’s Department of Public Service recently released an Emergency Broadband Action Plan that is among the most aggressive of all state responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The state currently has 944 cases of COVID-19, with 54 attributable deaths. A full third of households with school children lacked...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