BENNINGTON — The newly formed Southern Vermont Communications Union Districthas some good funding news and a full agenda going into its first annual meeting, set for Tuesday.
According to Tim Scoggins, a leader of the task force that promoted March town meeting votes in the 12 towns that joined the district, the 6 p.m. session will be via teleconferencing and will include an opportunity for public comments.
Scoggins said the district could soon take first steps toward expanding broadband access to the approximately 20 percent of the county lacking high-speed fiber optic cable service.
The Shaftsbury Select Board chairman said an application submitted for the district through the Bennington County Regional Commission, seeking a state Broadband Innovation Grant for a feasibility study, has been approved. The district received word of the award of up to $60,000 on Thursday from the state Department of Public Service, Scoggins said.
An application to the federal Rural Economic Development and Loan Program also is planned, funding from which would allow BCRC staff to provide technical and other assistance as the district considers possible broadband extension projects.
Ultimately, the goal is to partner with one or more internet service providers, or other firms providing technical services, to extend fiber optic cable to under-served rural areas. Targeted are areas where population density hasn't made such connections profitable for commercial providers, and/or where the cost would be prohibitive for potential customers.
One option is for a CUD itself to create and manage a system that would then contract for technical, financial or other services from private companies. Other approaches could involve a combination of the available options for serving underserved or unserved areas of the district.
Can accept donations
Under the enabling state legislation, a CUD cannot raise funding through taxes but is eligible for reduced-rate bond financing for projects. Part of the feasibility study would weigh the long-term financial sustainability of a system and its ability to cover operational and borrowing costs. The study will produce a three-year business plan.
A CUD also can raise funds, accepting donations from individuals and organizations toward the goal of expanding access to under-served areas.
BCRC Community and Economic Development Specialist Jonathan Cooper, who has worked with the task force that proposed the local CUD, said the state's first district, ECFiber, located in the Woodstock-Royalton area and including two dozen towns, did fundraising for several years before creating its system.
Cooper said that after several years of studying high-speed internet needs in Vermont, and mapping underserved areas, the state established the district format for expanding broadband service — now having it in place as interest in expansion is intense because of the coronavirus epidemic.
Not only is the state interested in assisting and helping more to fund such initiatives, Cooper said, but federal economic development stimulus and other federal funding could soon become available.
"It feels like now, everybody is on this," he said.
The state Department of Public Service on Tuesday posted for public comment a draft COVID-19 Emergency Broadband Plan that would, among other things, be in place to take advantage of new federal funding sources.
In a release, the DPS said the proposed funding level needed to enact the plan would range from $85 million to $293 million, and the overall plan will "propose measures that, if fully funded, will achieve universal service and bring broadband capable networks to students, remote workers, teachers, patients, and healthcare workers."
The final plan also will propose "concrete, executable measures that the state can implement;" will "include both short-term and long-term basis measures," and will "review federal funding opportunities, and describe how those opportunities can be leveraged to increase broadband access."
Comments on the plan can be submitted to the DPS by email to firstname.lastname@example.org , or by mail to the Department of Public Service, 112 State St., Montpelier, Vt., 05620-2601. Comments are due by May 26.
Cooper said the coronavirus epidemic "is highlighting where we have [access] gaps," as more residents and businesses are using the internet and working remotely.
In addition, he said, the need for high-speed connections to access telemedicine and other health or safety related-services has come into sharp relief during the epidemic.
According to the DPS figures, 23 percent of the state — comprising just under 70,000 business and residential locations — lacks access to broadband service. Federal regulators have defined minimum standards for broadband as 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 mbps for uploads.
To elect officers
At the first annual meeting, the district's volunteer representatives, who were chosen by each of the member towns, will elect a chair, vice chair, treasurer and district clerk and will then set a regular meeting schedule.
That is expected to be the second Wednesday of each month.
As of this week, all of the towns except for Pownal had officially notified the district of their representative. The other towns involved are Arlington, Bennington, Dorset, Landgrove, Manchester, Peru, Rupert, Sandgate, Shaftsbury, Sunderland and Woodford.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien