MONTPELIER — The Vermont House has approved a bill, H. 360, investing $150 million in broadband buildout, which experts said would greatly help in accelerating the process of getting unserviced and underserviced Vermonters connected more quickly.
“With this funding, we will hopefully be able to hire administrative staff and do a lot of the pre-work ... for implementation for early-to-mid 2022,” said Sean Kio, director of economic development for the Town of Enosburgh and chair of the Northwest Communications Union District.
"The pandemic has highlighted the absolute necessity of high-speed internet access," said Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint in an announcement Tuesday. "We have seen too many students struggle with remote learning and too many seniors that can't access tele-health. We can't fix that instantly, but this bill demonstrates our firm commitment to expand access to high-speed internet for all.”
Kio said that with the successful implementation of regional communications union districts (CUDs), broadband subscribers and customers could rely on their local CUDs to help make broadband affordable for working and low-income housing situations, especially among those underserved and unserved in the community.
In the Northwest CUD, the newest of Vermont’s CUDs comprised of 12 towns and 14,090 premises, 2,091 premises still have no connectivity, Kio said.
In addition, 6,602 remain in the “underserved” designation, meaning they don't meet the definition of broadband with is 25/03 megabytes. That means 47% of all 14,090 do not have adequate connectivity.
The Northwest CUD, Kio said, has an on-track goal to provide adequate broadband connection to every household in the next four to five years.
“We don't want to be a telecom,” Kio said. “We don’t want to be an operator. We don't want to compete with local companies. We want to build the structure and have others deliver the services.”
Kio said that if all of the planning and strategy is laid out on the part of the Northwest CUD this year, they may be able to begin implementation of their planning as early as the first quarter of next year and reach all of the households in the Vermont’s northwest.
“We’re on track for that,” Kio said. “We have a good group of folks from utility, telecom, and board members are truly well-versed in the number of different areas.”
From an economic development perspective, Kio said the expansion of broadband would be a tectonic shift towards job creation, workforce development, increased home values and many other major impacts that could further serve Vermont’s northern counties, which are already growing rapidly.
“Areas that have fiber(optic) are succeeding economically and business wise,” Kio said. “If we can level the playing field, Franklin and Grand Isle counties will benefit from that. Having a much greater broadband capacity has a lot of benefits. It’s a lot more attractive place for working young professionals to live, and they’re looking at affordable homes.”
H. 360 also includes the creation of a board responsible for deploying grants and accruing information and skills workforce to support the CUDs developed in towns and regions statewide, would create a property tax exemption to co-ops that connect fiberoptics through a lease agreement with the CUDs, which are in and of themselves considered municipalities under state law and thereby exempt from property tax.
"We want to take advantage of low-interest loans our co-ops can access, and put that money to use building broadband," explained Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden. “Leveraging all funds, including significant federal dollars, gives us the chance to bring fiber down every last dirt road in the state. We are setting up a process to get this done for the benefit of families and businesses for decades to come.”
Kio said the creation of CUDs, “borne out of decades of frustrations,” resulted in Vermonters doing it “the Vermont way,” and fighting for broadband connectivity for their small communities regardless of any seeming monopoly by bigger companies.
“We’re actively making this happen as soon as possible,” Kio said of CUD efforts. “As a result of getting service to the underserved and unserved, we will in effect level the playing field because people will know that the network their rates will be more affordable. We might have communities that want the CUD network. They might be looking to have another option...I’m a strong believe that competition breeds cheaper rates and better service.”