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For Better Broadband Access, Southern Vermont Towns Consider Communications District

People sit in a meeting room in front of a screen.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Selectboard and planning commission members from across southern Vermont came out to a meeting in Wilmington to get an update on the state's new broadband initiaitve, which provides funding for bringing broadband to underserved rural regions.

Town officials from across southern Vermont are considering a communications union district to bring broadband into underserved parts of the region.
Like a water district or a solid waste district, communications union districts allow towns to join together into a legal entity that can then plan for and finance broadband buildout into parts of the state that cable companies don’t serve.

Gov. Phil Scott signed H.513 earlier this year, which set aside $1.5 million to support broadband projects. Included in the state funding are grants of up to $60,000, which towns, or groups, can apply for to plan for broadband buildout.

Dover Rep. Laura Sibilia,  who was a lead supporter of the bill, attended a recent meeting in Wilmington to bring towns together to learn about the funding and begin conversations about joining into districts.

“We have volunteers out here looking to build out a really critical infrastructure in terms of connectivity,” Sibilia told the crowd of about 50 people. “These are big hard projects, and so working together is going to be very important."

"These are big hard projects, and so working together is going to be very important." — Laura Sibilia, Dover state representative

The program includes about $700,000 in grants for planning broadband buildout, and another $100,000 for technical assistance when plans are determined to be viable.

The Department of Public Service will also be hiring a new advisor to work directly with towns to bring broadband to the “last mile” homes and busineses.

Department of Public Service telecommunications director Clay Purvis said most of the planning money will be given out after Town Meeting Day 2020. He encouraged interested towns to hold votes and see if there is support for taking on the broadband projects.

Representatives from Halifax, Wardsboro, Wilmington, Readsboro, Shaftsbury, Dover and Whitingham all expressed an interest in seeing if a communications union district could work for the area.

Windham County Senator Becca Balint promised that the county’s delegation, along with the Windham Regional Commission, would help people keep in contact across town lines.

“It isn’t necessarily a guarantee that it’s going to work, but I also don’t want us to remain paralyzed, because that’s where we’ve been,” Ballant said. “And we need to do something different. We have to start communicating better across town lines and come together as these larger union districts to make this happen.”

As for other parts of the state, EC Fiber serves 26 towns in the Upper Valley. Purvis, the state telecommunications director, said another group near Montpelier is working to bring broadband to small towns in the area.

Correction: Friday, Sept. 13 6:22 a.m. Becca Balint's name was missplled in the original story.

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