The governing board of the Southern Vermont Communications Union District, a year-old municipality dedicated to bringing broadband to underserved parts of the region, approved a non-disclosure agreement with Consolidated Communications in advance of discussions regarding possible collaboration.
“We reached out to (Consolidated) to see if there are areas where our goals overlap,” SoVT CUD wrote in announcing the special meeting on Feb. 17 at which the agreement was approved. “They want an NDA in place before entering those discussions.”
Consultants hired by SoVT CUD to develop a study of its eventual network’s feasibility recommended at a meeting in early February that the district explore a public-private partnership with Consolidated, which recently won millions of dollars in federal funds through a reverse auction overseen by the Federal Communications Commission to expand high-speed internet service in the region and across the state.
Before the SoVT CUD board voted on the non-disclosure agreement, chairman Tim Scoggins said that in response to concerns raised by another board member about compliance with transparency-related state laws, the group’s attorney had eliminated clauses in the proposed agreement that claimed the fact of entering into the agreement and the agreement itself were confidential.
Because SoVT CUD is a public body, “we can only enter into the agreement in a public meeting,” Scoggins said.
After a private, executive session during the meeting, the board approved the agreement unanimously, subject to further attorney review. State law permits public bodies to discuss contracts in executive session “after making a specific finding that premature general public knowledge would clearly place the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage.”
“Non-disclosure agreements facilitate open discussion and, like many other companies and organizations, Consolidated Communications requests they’re in place when sensitive or confidential information may be shared with another party,” Shannon Sullivan, corporate communications manager for the company, said in a statement on Monday.
Sullivan previously told the Banner that the company is “eager to collaborate” to further its commitment to expanding broadband service. The company has forged partnerships with municipalities in New Hampshire; in one of those deals, according to a consultant for SoVT CUD, the company pays the town of Dublin thousands of dollars per month to operate the municipally owned fiber network, which covers debt service on a town-issued bond.
Consolidated’s success in the FCC auction and its plans to spend millions of dollars on fiber internet in Vermont complicate SoVT CUD’s own path forward, one of the district’s consultants said earlier this month, because “fiber is something that you can’t compete with,” given the carrier’s size advantage.
Scoggins didn’t immediately respond to an email on Monday asking if the agreement has been executed and requesting a copy.
The SoVT CUD consultants also previously suggested that the district could explore teaming up with the adjacent Deerfield Valley CUD. A collaboration of that type would still likely entail enlisting a private entity like Consolidated or another company to operate the shared network.
Deerfield Valley’s governing board approved a long-in-the-works memorandum of understanding with SoVT CUD at its own Feb. 17 meeting, according to minutes. Jeff Such, who represents the town of Londonderry on both the Deerfield Valley and SoVT CUD boards, said the latter entity would vote on the MOU at its next meeting, which is slated for March 3.
WINHALL BOARD VOTES TO JOIN
The town of Winhall is poised to become the 14th member town of the SoVT CUD after its Select Board voted on Feb. 17 to join the district.
“I don’t see a downside,” said Select Board Chair Julie Isaacs before the vote. “We can get out of it if for some reason we’re not happy with it.”
Isaacs asked Such, who represented the district at the meeting, when town residents could expect to see the district provide internet service.
Such said anywhere between one to three or four years, depending on factors like the engineering process and labor availability.
Select Board member William Schwartz echoed Isaacs’ point about a lack of downside — CUDs lack taxing authority — but wondered whether Starlink, a new satellite-based internet provider that also won federal support through the FCC auction in the Bennington County area, could pose a threat to the district’s progress. Such said that the two technologies — fiber and satellite — are not competing but rather “divergent and complementary” and that the satellite company’s service is still in beta form.
Winhall resident Fred Schwacke will serve as the town’s representative on the SoVT CUD board, assuming the district board approves the addition of Winhall as a member town at a future meeting. The Select Board also voted to join the Deerfield Valley CUD, mimicking an approach taken by the adjacent town of Londonderry.
SoVT CUD’s current member towns are Arlington, Bennington, Dorset, Landgrove, Londonderry, Manchester, Pownal, Peru, Rupert, Sandgate, Shaftsbury, Sunderland and Woodford.
INSURANCE, OFFICER CHANGES
At its Feb. 17 meeting, the SoVT CUD board approved spending up to $3,500 for year-long insurance coverage from Telecom Insurance Group. The district may end up receiving a partial refund, depending on how much money it pays to contractors during the year, according to Such.
Chairman Tim Scoggins said the organization’s governing board will elect new officers at its next meeting on March 3. Scoggins said he had initially planned to relinquish his chairmanship in May but now believes “the board would be better served at this point if we made that transition sooner rather than later.”
Scoggins has endorsed Jeff Such, currently the board’s secretary, to serve as the new chairman.