After lawmakers approved a bill last year that encourages towns to work together to expand broadband coverage, more than 35 municipalities are expected to vote to form communications union districts at town meeting in March.
Communications union districts, or CUDs, are municipal organizations, like a water district or a school district, that allow the groups to borrow money on the municipal bond market and apply for grants and loans that can help deliver fiber networks into underserved rural areas.
Bill Fisk lives in the Bennington County town of Shaftsbury, one of 11 towns working on forming the Southern Vermont Communication Union District.
"Literally if I could stand on the roof of my house I could point up my road and tell you where the last service port is for that. I can look in another direction and see the other," Fisk said. "I'm in a little, like, a dead zone in the midst of three different access lines coming out."
More from VPR — For Better Broadband Access, Southern Vermont Towns Consider Communications District [Sept. 12]
Shaftsbury Selectboard Chairman Tim Scoggins has been organizing the towns around southwestern Vermont. He said at a time when it is sometimes hard to find volunteers to step up and work on municipal issues, there has been a lot of enthusiasm about the broadband issue.
"In a small town it's hard to find people to volunteer," Scoggins said. "But people are contacting us and wanting to get involved. They say they'll be at the polls and campaign to make sure it happens."
When Fisk heard Scoggins was organizing residents to try to improve broadband service, he was all in.
"I will do whatever I can," Fisk said. "Tim mentioned having people at the polls to promote it, and I'll certainly stand there and promote it. And anything I can do along those lines — if it's writing letters to the editor, I can do that as well."
EXPLORE THE MAP — Places in Vermont where joining a communications union district is on (blue) or expected to be on (red) the warrant for Town Meeting Day 2019. Data via Department of Public Works.
"I would say in all corners of the state there are people looking at the issue of broadband and thinking about forming communication union districts," said Clay Purvis, the Department of Public Service telecommunications director.
The broadband bill that Gov. Phil Scott signed in June created a new "Broadband Expansion Loan Program" to provide capital to start-up broadband providers. The bill also put more than $1 million into the "Connectivity Initiative," which provides grants to groups working to improve internet service.
Purvis said the votes taking place at town meeting will establish the CUDs that will ultimately benefit from the programs.
"We have new tools, new resources available now for broadband," Purvis said. "It's not going to make broadband magically appear but it does give communities that want to do something about broadband a fighting chance."
The state gave out the first round of grants in November.
The Windham Regional Commission was one of the groups that got $60,000 to support their work in southeast Vermont. Susan Westa, a senior planner with Windham Regional, said the organization will do a feasibility study for all of the region.
While it will likely be years before any new fiber is connected, Westa said getting all the small towns working together now is a way to at least move things forward.
"It's not a slam dunk at all, but this is a really important first step in getting these communication union districts up and going," Westa said. "And it doesn't make sense to do it one town at a time, especially in our rural communities."
Correction 1:10 p.m. A previous version of the post referenced a broadband bill passed "this year," but the post has been updated to note it passed in 2019.