Shaftsbury eyeing grant for broadband feasibility study
SHAFTSBURY — Town officials are exploring a grant option for a feasibility study to examine how to bring universal broadband to residents.
At a meeting Monday, the Select Board gave Chairman Tim Scoggins the go-ahead to look into the Broadband Innovation Grant program, which provides grants of up to $60,000 to fund feasibility studies related to deploying broadband in rural unserved and underserved areas of the state.
Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Scott and the Department of Public Service announced the launch of the first of three rounds of funding for the program.
"I'll be looking into it immediately," Scoggins said when reached Tuesday. He said he anticipates seeking a vote on applying for the grant at the board's next meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 3 at 6:30 p.m.
"I expect that a whole lot of towns are going to want to get access to it," Scoggins said of the grant funding. "I think it's important to apply early, and give it our best effort."
The $700,000 in total Broadband Innovation Grant funding was appropriated to the Department of Public Service through H. 513, " An act relating to broadband deployment throughout Vermont," which Scott signed into law in July.
Shaftsbury's feasibility study would explore multiple options, including a model involving the creation of a communication district, and another option, where the town would take out a bond to pay for broadband buildout by another entity. People who use the service would pay a user fee to pay back the bond, Scoggins said.
"We're hoping that the feasibility study will lay out particulars for us, of [these] two approaches," he said.
If the town does not receive the grant, officials will still pursue other options, Scoggins said.
"We are looking at every way we can come up with to improve our broadband situation," he said, "So if we don't get the grant, we will continue to explore ways this could happen."
The town could also decide to skip a feasibility study pursue a bond model, which would require a town vote, he said.
The town is aware that broadband is an issue for many residents.
Comcast is the town's main internet provider, with wired broadband. Consolidated Communications provides DSL, and VTeL provides radio wave fixed wireless service, Scoggins previously said.
Shaftsbury had previously applied for a USDA grant to enable them to pay a service provider to extend coverage. But the town wasn't eligible, as the money has to go directly to the entity that owns the lines.
Between March 1 and April 15, the town collected 260 online responses to a broadband access survey designed by Scoggins and the town planning commission. That represents about 17 percent of households in town.
While about 92 percent of respondents to a town internet survey reported they have internet at home, 44 percent said it is not sufficient for their use — it is either "way too slow" or "not fast enough." And 7.4 percent of respondents said internet service isn't available at their homes.
The impetus for the survey came from the 2018 Connectivity Summit, held last November in Dover, concerning internet connectivity.
"The real point of it was — nobody is going to fix our broadband problems," Scoggins previously said of the summit. "We're going to have to do it on our own. A relatively easy first step is to do a survey. That's what we decided to do."
He said he believes the survey results are illustrative of the town as a whole — most people in town have internet, but there are areas that can't access it.
Scoggins said he gets feedback on the internet problems in town "all the time."
"When I get stopped on the street, most of the time, it's people wanting to know when we're going to do something about the broadband situation," he said.
Having broadband internet is "pretty much essential to participate in the modern economy," he said.
"We know we have real estate agents [who] tell us they lose sales because people find out they can't get internet," he said. "We feel like if we had world-class internet in Shaftsbury, we would attract people to live and work here."
H. 513 found that 7 percent of Vermont addresses do not have access to the most basic high speed internet access, which is 4 megabits per second download and 1 mbps upload. Nearly 20 percent of Vermont addresses do not have access to modern internet speeds of 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload, according to the bill.
The bill also states that existing internet service providers are not providing adequate service to many rural areas, where fewer potential customers reduce the profitability necessary to justify system expansion.
Multiple communities have attempted to implement their own broadband solutions, but have been hampered by lack of access to capital, according to the bill.
Other bill provisions
The broadband innovation grants are a "key piece" of H.513, said Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, who was a lead advocate for the bill.
"...We're asking folks on the ground to show us how we're going to do it," she said of broadband projects. "Ideally, we are looking for communications union districts to be formed. That is, groups of towns. The bill is really created to help towns come together and solve this."
It was also key, Sibilia said, that the bill provided for the creation of a position to provide technical assistance on broadband connectivity projects — a rural broadband technical assistance specialist at the state level.
That position has not yet been filled, she said.
The bill also increases the charge for retail telecommunications service by .4 percent, which is expected to raise $1.2 million. Of this, all but up to $120,000 goes to the connectivity initiative, an existing program that awards grants to internet service providers (ISPs) for broadband buildout in unserved and underserved areas.
H. 513 also establishes the Vermont Broadband Expansion Loan Program to make loans enabling expanded broadband service in unserved and underserved locations. Each loan has an individual limit of $4 million, with a total limit of $10.8 million.
This is an important initiative, as loans for broadband projects are generally considered "somewhat higher risk," Sibilia said. The first dollars for such projects tend to be the most challenging to get, she said.
"Because, of course, you don't have people paying for a service before the network is built and connected," she said. "Those first dollars are pretty key. The advantage [of this] is that you can get the loan. It's a higher-risk loan. They're lending on a good plan, basically."
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext.118.
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