Shaftsbury seeks grant for broadband feasibility study

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SHAFTSBURY — The town is set to apply for a Broadband Innovation Grant of $60,000 through the state to determine the feasibility of a possible fiber-to-the-home broadband project.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Select Board voted to authorize a 10 percent, $6,000 match for the grant if the town receives it, said Tim Scoggins, chairman of the board.

They chose to do that because the grant application gives preference to entities that provide matching funds, putting "some skin in the game," Scoggins said.

The vote follows the board's authorizing Scoggins at a meeting last month 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.

The grant application deadline is Oct. 25; the notice of award date is Nov. 8, Scoggins said.

Scoggins, who is putting together the application, said the town is applying for $60,000 because it's maximum amount offered, and "it's been suggested that that's probably the number that we want to apply for," he said.

The grant would provide funding to do a feasibility study for broadband in Shaftsbury. Specifically, it would study the feasibility of a particular model the town seems to be "leaning toward," Scoggins said.

That model, based on work currently underway in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, would involve a 100 percent fiber-to-the-home broadband system, where the town pays laying fiber on poles and the company in question pays for the buildout to the homes. User fee revenue would be used to offset the town spending, which would be bonded, Scoggins said.

"To see if this is economically viable for us to do this," Scoggins said of the study. "We know how important getting broadband is to our citizens and our economy. And Chesterfield, New Hampshire is doing this, their broadband buildout is happening as we speak, and if we can expect to get enough customers to make it affordable, it's something that we need to do."

Scoggins previously 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 previously said. "We feel like if we had world-class internet in Shaftsbury, we would attract people to live and work here."

At its meeting Tuesday, the Select Board heard from two representatives of Consolidated Communications, which currently provides internet service in town, about the buildout in Chesterfield, which the company is undertaking.

"A big part of it was discussing how the financing has worked," Scoggins said of the board's interaction with the representatives.

The company is suggesting that the town pursue a model like the one in Chesterfield.

This would mean a full fiber buildout for every home in Shaftsbury, Scoggins said.

The company is providing the same numbers used in Chesterfield as an estimate of costs — around $2 million to run fiber on the poles, Scoggins said.

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When asked if Shaftsbury could afford to bond that amount, Scoggins said, "it would require that a significant portion of it get covered by that user fee."

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 Gov. Phil Scott signed into law in July.

If the town does not receive the grant, officials will still pursue other options, Scoggins previously said.

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 paying 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.

The town recently surveyed some residents' broadband access.

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.

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, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, who was a lead advocate for the bill, previously said.

"...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.

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 previously said. The first dollars for such projects tend to be the most challenging to get, she said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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