BENNINGTON — Twelve towns in the county have voted to become founding members of a regional communications union district, bringing their residents a step closer to getting high-speed internet service.
The Southern Vermont Communications Union District will be made up of Arlington, Bennington, Dorset, Landgrove, Manchester, Peru, Pownal, Rupert, Sandgate, Shaftsbury, Sunderland and Woodford. Residents approved their town's participation either through a floor vote or secret balloting during Town Meeting Day this week.
The head of the task force that worked toward the creation of the communications union district, or CUD, wasn't surprised voters unanimously approved the idea.
"I had heard next to no negative comments about the CUD, and mostly people who are really anxious to see their internet situation improve," Tim Scoggins, who also serves as chairman of the Shaftsbury Select Board, said Wednesday.
Vermont State Rep. Kathleen James, who spearheaded the task force's formation, said Wednesday that she was "gratified" with the towns' vote.
James described this as an "important next step" in the quest to bring broadband internet to underserved "last mile" roads and neighborhoods.
She was referring to about a quarter of Vermont that the state Department of Public Service said is not reached by broadband — a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
"We all know that high-speed connectivity is a key element of economic development, public safety and attracting residents to our town," James said.
Communications union districts, which are municipal organizations, can borrow money on the municipal bond market. They can also apply for grants and loans to establish fiber internet networks in rural areas, markets that big internet service providers don't consider profitable.
Scoggins hopes the new high-speed internet system will be in place here within three to five years. Some internet service providers, he said, have already contacted him to say they'd like to become part of the project.
For now, the Southern Vermont CUD needs to form a governing board, comprised of a board member and an alternate from each member town. The town representatives need to be appointed by their Select Board.
The governing board will meet sometime in April to take care of the necessary paperwork, such as establishing bylaws and registering with the state.
The CUD plans to apply for a grant under Act 79 for a feasibility study and three-year business plan. Act 79, a 2019 law that relates to expanding broadband across Vermont, can provide up to $60,000. The CUD is also looking into federal funding for the project's construction phase."
Scoggins is encouraging community members to participate in the communications district's governing board.
"We could use more volunteers from each town to step up to serve on the board," he said.
The state's first CUD, called ECFiber, was formed in 2015 and now provides high-speed internet to at least 20 towns in east central Vermont.
Contact Tiffany Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.