WILMINGTON — Legislators are encouraging communities to create legal entities aimed at expanding broadband or related technologies.
"The formation of a communications union district (CUD), figuring out how to do that, is probably the first thing that we should do," Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said at a meeting. "I think that it is going to be difficult. I know in Vermont, we like to work by ourselves but these are big, hard projects. And so working together, I think, is going to be really important."
Sibilia told attendees two towns will need to agree to form a union then others can join on. Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, said successful models exist in the state and can be used as reference points for developing "our potential CUDs."
Most of the Windham County delegation appeared at Wednesday's meeting, which included residents and town officials from towns such as Dover, Halifax, Readsboro, Vernon, Wardsboro and Wilmington. Balint noted Sibilia's leadership on the issue.
"I want you all to know that this woman was like a dog on a bone this session," Balint said. "She came in with a plan, making sure that we could get a broadband bill through the House ... and was very diligent and persistent in making sure that we could get something to the governor's office."
Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Vermont Department of Public Service, described connectivity as an issue in both urban and rural areas: The former is mostly about affordability and the latter is about financing construction of the infrastructure.
"Our geography is really challenging in Vermont —- we are dispersed, we have small towns, we have farming communities — so the distance between service locations is far so the cost of deploying broadband is more expensive per location," he said. Hills are the enemy of wireless technology and it requires a lot more towers, for instance, to bring cell coverage to the same number of people."
Purvis said property tax dollars cannot be used to build telecommunications facilities. He called communications union districts "a very important first step" in getting needed projects completed.
ECFiber and Central Vermont Fiber are unions already in existence in northern areas of the state. They are being looked at as models for what can be done in southern Vermont.
Similar to solid waste and water districts, towns "come together for a common cause — that being broadband," said Purvis, who anticipates a number of communities will hold votes on whether to join unions at annual Town Meeting Day in March. He estimated ECFiber includes about 26 towns and covers more than 3,000 customers. Central Vermont Fiber, which includes 16 towns, is in the process of planning a project.
The Department of Public Service will be offering technical assistance to towns interested in telecommunications projects. A person to handle that work is expected to be hired soon. Brattleboro Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland asked that the communities be notified once the position is filled, which Purvis agreed to do.
The department will issue $700,000 in Broadband Innovation Grants in three rounds. Each group can get up to $60,000 for planning purposes.
"It may not be enough but it's a substantial amount for this type of activity," Purvis said, expecting towns will hire consultants if they obtain grants. "We have to spend a little bit of money to look at this and it has to be OK if the answer is no."
The department also will continue to provide grants through the Connectivity Initiative, a program that started in 2014 as a way to develop broadband in places where it is lacking. Other grants are available through the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said his group could call together additional meetings. He recommended getting ECFiber to provide information on the economics and technical aspects.
Sibilia anticipated a meeting with the group could be held within the next month or so. She said she thinks that a county could form a union but questioned if it would be practical.
Ann Manwaring of Wilmington suggested the "great collection of towns" in the Deerfield Valley could make up a union.
"I'd be very interested in seeing that happen," she said.
Campany planned on putting information from Purvis' presentation on his group's website. Attendees wrote down their contact information on a sign-in sheet, which is expected to be used to continue communications between interested parties.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.