Sean Kio, director of the Northwest Communications Union District, speaks at a press conference in Montpelier Nov. 1. NWCUD received $604,376 from the state for hiring staff and gathering data.

MONTPELIER — The Northwest Communications Union District (NWCUD) was among four CUDs to receive some of the first allocated dollars to expand fiber optic broadband access in Vermont.

State officials, including Gov. Phil Scott, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Christine Hallquist, executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, gathered Nov. 1 in Montpelier to announce $9.9 million in grants to conduct the pre-construction work necessary to build broadband networks capable of speeds of at least 100 Mbps.

NWCUD, which includes 16-member districts in Franklin and Grand Isle counties, received $604,376 to support hiring professional staff, operational expenses and administrative and legal services.

Formed in August 2020, NWCUD is the state’s youngest CUD. Sean Kio, spearheading the organization, went from volunteer to full-time director last month and is NWCUD’s first and only employee.

The first priority for the money will be to build an actual organization, Kio said, with hired and paid staff, not just a committee or a board.

The second is a pole study, which will gather data on the counties’ utility poles and identify where there are gaps in information.

The goal of the study is to understand what data is currently available for NWCUD on the status of the utility poles, things like the age and condition of the poles.

At Monday’s press conference, Kio said out of 19,000 premises in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties, 48% are considered underserved or not meeting the Federal Communication Commission's definition of broadband.

“As you can imagine, there's a big problem, and it creates a significant broadband disparity for lots of members of our community,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated issues with broadband access, as folks moved to remote work and students went to school online.

“COVID was a little bit of a silver lining for broadband in that it really highlighted how important it is and a lot more people are paying attention,” Kio said in an October interview with the Messenger.

The money granted on Monday comes from Act 71, which was passed in June, creating the Vermont Community Broadband Board and allocating $150 million in State Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to broadband issues.

Hallquist likened the movement for increased broadband access to Vermont’s rural areas to the movement that brought electricity. Hallquist and Kio both hope to begin construction in Franklin and Grand Isle counties in 2022, though Kio said it is probably unlikely to get a full construction season in.

Hallquist said she hopes to reach 100% broadband access in the state within the next five years, however, material and labor shortages are an obstacle. The board is working to mitigate the impacts by pre-purchasing material and working on a plan for the Department of Labor for fiber optic training and utility work.

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