BENNINGTON — The trucks have been out in Bennington and Shaftsbury for weeks now, with workers in hardhats and spools of cable going up on poles.
It’s the result of years of work by the Southern Vermont Communications Union District, which says its partnership with Consolidated Communications – and investments by that company, and federal and state government — with the goal of finally making universal high-speed internet access possible.
According to the Southern Vermont CUD, that work will be complete in the 14 towns it serves by the end of 2023 — far sooner than the five to 15 years that officials and planners figured the long-sought and expensive project might take.
“It’s really exciting,” Eric Hatch, the executive director of the Southern Vermont CUD, said Thursday. “There’s a pride for our community that they’re going to have this this year and everyone else by the end of next year. People have been so patient and waited so long, and it[s finally coming to fruition.”
The Southern Vermont CUD, one of several statewide, is a municipal government entity representing 14 towns in Bennington County. In 2021, it partnered with Consolidated Communications in a plan to extend high-speed broadband to unserved and underserved communities, leveraging state and federal funds.
CUDs are municipal boards established to work with broadband providers to close the “last mile” gap by providing reliable, affordable broadband service to the roughly one-third of Vermonters who lack reliable access. They were established by an act of the Legislature, as a means to bridge the gap on “last mile” service that communications firms in favor of delivering to more profitable, densely-populated regions.
In 2019, the Legislature passed a rural broadband bill that gave towns the tools they needed to launch CUDs. Reps. Kathleen James and Laura Sibilia then helped organize a forum that led to the creation of the Southern Vermont CUD, and 12 towns joined it on Town Meeting Day in 2020.
“Since then, these volunteers have invested countless hours in figuring out the best and most expeditious way to bring high-speed internet to our every town across our region,” James said.
“I’m glad we did it but since then volunteers from across Bennington County have picked up the ball and made this happen,” she said. “People need to understand the progress this represents.”
Another state law passed in 2021 paved the way for CUDs working with broadband providers to leverage federal funding, so long as they provided universal high-speed service at a rate of 100 megabits per second for both uploads and downloads.
While the need to bridge Vermont’s digital divide was well known, the COVID pandemic cast the importance of that goal in bold relief. The arrival of federal relief funds, and the good fortune of Consolidated having both fiber optic cable and workers despite pandemic-driven supply chain and workforce challenges, shortened the timeline substantially.
“The whole CUD was put together with the mission of universal access to really help close that digital divide for folks who were not in the downtown, people that didn’t have necessary access to do telehealth, to do work from home, to meet educational requirements,” Hatch said
“I would add that our work isn’t done as a community,” he said. “Now that we have the basic infrastructure, we need to make sure everyone who wants to can get signed up and have that access to actually link up and connect to that fiber.”
Federal subsidies for those who qualify could lower that cost to less than $30 per month, he said.
Phase 1 of the project, which has technically already started, is providing service to unserved and underserved households in the Bennington, Woodford, most of Shaftsbury, and Glastenbury. It’s expected to be completed by 2022 and is entirely funded by Consolidated, as well as 500 additional homes in those three towns that otherwise would not be covered.
“Folks who are always left off are no longer left off as of this year,” Hatch said.
Consolidated is covering the $1.6 million cost of that, as it rolls out its Fidium fiber optic high-speed internet product across its service area.
Phase 2 will include the rest of homes not served in the Southern Vermont CUD, including Dorset, Landgrove, Londonderry, Manchester, Peru, Pownal and Rupert. That’s expected to be completed by the end of 2023, leveraging federal funding to connect 2,000 households that otherwise would not be covered. It includes funds from the federal Rural Digital Opportunities Fund.
”We will be requesting a little over $8.8 million to cover the unserved in the CUD,” Hatch said, with Consolidated picking up the balance.
“Because of our strong partnership and Consolidated wanting to provide coverage in this area they will be fulfilling their Rural Digital Opportunities Fund obligation three years earlier than required by the federal grant program,” Hatch said.
Phase 3 addresses the “hardest 100” homes in hard-to-reach areas — though Hatch expects that will be less than 100, once eligibility and logistics are worked out. The Southern Vermont CUD is conducting an analysis to see how those homes can be served — with providers other than Consolidated, such as those from New York, Massachusetts or other CUDs.
“Before all of the funding we were looking at 5, 10, 15 year plans to get everyone wired up,” Hatch said. “To have it done in two years feels really good.”