The Southern Vermont Communications Union District’s long-in-the-works feasibility study has been approved by the state, the district board’s governing chair said.
Jeff Such, the board’s chair, said at a March 24 meeting that the organization, which is working toward bringing fiber-optic internet to the region, will now turn to developing a business plan, which won’t be finalized until the district has lined up an operating agreement with a private-sector partner.
The feasibility study and business plan are supported by a $60,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Public Service that was awarded last year. The now-completed study, developed by Alex Kelley of Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. and Carole Monroe of ValleyNet, recommended that the district join forces with the adjacent Deerfield Valley CUD or partner with incumbent carrier Consolidated Communications, which is expanding its fiber network in Vermont with federal support. The district may also explore a third option not reflected in the study, according to Such, who described a potential “Route 7 corridor fiber network” that would extend north from Bennington County into Rutland and Addison counties.
The passage of the federal American Rescue Plan appears to augur well for the district and other CUDs. “Our whole world and the world of all CUDs got really thrown on its head a few weeks ago in a very good way,” said Such.
The Vermont House last week passed a bill last week that would direct $150 million in federal ARP funds to programs in support of CUDs; it has yet to pass in the Senate. There are currently nine CUDs in Vermont.
“The startup capital we’ve been very desperately seeking is here — and in a big way,” Such said, going on to cite a recent $94 billion broadband bill proposed by House and Senate Democrats and another state bill that could unlock additional funding as other positive developments.
As the district awaits receipt of those or other funds, it has increased its meeting frequency to twice per month, embarked on building a new website and, last week, approved a letter of intent to seek strategic assistance from CCG Consulting, a telecommunications consultancy. The board’s officers also have been meeting with private-sector entities. In February the board approved a non-disclosure agreement with Consolidated as a precursor to discussions, and last week it approved the same kind of agreement with SpaceX, the developer of satellite internet company Starlink. A message sent to SpaceX’s media email address on Tuesday didn’t receive an immediate response.
In an email on Tuesday, Such suggested that Starlink could potentially bolster internet service in the short-term for the more than 2,500 households in the district that lack basic broadband service, defined as at least 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.
“The district has two (at times competing) priorities: ensure that our residents are set up for success in the 21st century economy (as well as access modern education and health resources) with future-proof connectivity infrastructure, while acknowledging that such a large infrastructure lift will take years,” Such wrote. “SpaceX might be an example of readily-available technology that can close that emergency gap in the interim with minimal (capital expenditure) while we all wait patiently for the comprehensive solution Vermonters deserve.”
The board at its March 3 meeting voted to admit Winhall as the CUD’s 14th and newest member town. The other members are Arlington, Bennington, Dorset, Landgrove, Londonderry, Manchester, Pownal, Peru, Rupert, Sandgate, Shaftsbury, Sunderland and Woodford. In addition to Such, the board’s other officers are vice chair Mark Hyde, of Sunderland, and secretary Sheila Kearns, of Sandgate.
Such wrote in an email that he hopes the board will arrive at a decision on whether to issue a request for proposals from prospective private partners or to go a different route sometime in April.
“We’re conferring with our technical, legal and industry experts on next steps,” he wrote.