Selectpersons Steve Lamos and Matt Crawford, and Administrator Amber Baker, 8-13-2019

Selectpersons Steve Lamos and Matt Crawford, and town administrator Amber Baker, attend an August 2019 selectboard meeting.

GEORGIA – Georgia officials have agreed to join the southern Franklin County town into the Northwest Vermont communications union district.

The town’s selectboard voted unanimously last week to join Georgia into the district, appointing the town’s administrator Amber Baker as the town’s representative with selectperson Tara Wright serving as a possible substitute.

A communications union district – or CUD – is an entity formed by two or more municipalities to address regional gaps in broadband access by building its own infrastructure where construction would be unprofitable for larger communications companies.

The organizations function akin to solid waste districts and are governed by a board of commissioners appointed to represent the district’s member towns.

With support from the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC), selectboards in Enosburgh, Fairfax and Montgomery agreed last month to create the Northwest Vermont CUD to address well-known gaps in accessing broadband in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.

When presenting the possibility of joining the district to Georgia’s selectboard last week, Baker noted the ongoing pandemic and possibility of work and school continuing to be done from home underscored the region’s need for addressing its gaps in broadband access.

“Clearly with everything going on with education right now and with COVID, a lot of people are working from home and a lot of kids are trying to do their homework from home, and we need to have better Internet providing services in this area,” Baker said.

The Northwest Vermont CUD is expected to convene for its first meeting among its three founding members later this week, according to testimony from a recent meeting of NRPC’s governing board of commissioners.

Following its initial organization, the Northwest Vermont CUD is expected to seek state grant funding for a feasibility study and business plan, with NRPC’s board of commissioners recently approving having NRPC serve as the district’s fiscal agent while it formally organizes.

According to testimony from NRPC’s executive director Catherine Dimitruk, the organization could also potentially tap into Vermont Community Foundation funding and into an allocation from Vermont’s share of the CARES Act, the federal government’s $2.2 trillion pandemic relief package passed in March.

Previous testimony from a Vermont Department of Public Service official to selectboards in Enosburgh and Montgomery said state and federal funding sources typically preferred directing funding for broadband through organizations like CUDs.

According to a recording of that NRPC meeting made available by Northwest Access Television, Dimitruk said the towns of Alburgh, Bakersfield, Berkshire, Highgate and Richford have likewise shown interest in joining with the Northwest Vermont CUD.

Vermont as a whole has, like many states, struggled with broadband accessibility even as life increasingly moves online.

A quarter of the state, according to the Department of Public Service, sees available Internet services fall short of the upload and download speeds cited as the Federal Communications Commission’s benchmark for “high-speed Internet,” a definition industry experts have challenged as inadequate.

Within Georgia, the town’s connection to the CUD would be intended for the “dirt roads” and remote areas where larger telecommunication companies could only operate at either higher relative costs for the user or at a financial loss.

“It’s for the roads that don’t have a lot of homes and such can get better service,” Baker said during last week’s selectboard meeting. “It’s allowing for feasibility studies and business plans to figure out how we can get to those remote areas.”

The selectboard’s vote was unanimous, according to the Lake Champlain Access Television recording of the selectboard’s remote meeting.

For at least one member of the selectboard, the push to address broadband shortfalls in the region seemed a long time coming.

“I’ve only heard about this from Howard Dean, Jim Douglas, Pete Shumlin and the new guy [Gov. Phil Scott] about getting communications down here in Vermont,” the selectboard’s chair, Matt Crawford, said, “so I’m glad we’re finally doing it at a regional level.”

The board agreed to appoint the town administrator as its representative to the district after Baker volunteered to do so.

Wright, meanwhile, was picked as an alternate due to a background in communications, according to minutes from that meeting posted on the town’s official website.

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