Planners urge formation of communications district
By Jason Starr
Chittenden County is the most internet-enabled region of Vermont, and yet, there remain pockets of rural neighborhoods that are either not connected or connected at impractically slow speeds.
About 4 percent of the homes in Williston fall into this category, according to the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. These 138 homes are mostly at the end of various roads in the southern part of town. It’s about the same percentage of unserved and underserved homes countywide.
Most have some internet connection, but not enough to effectively work or attend school remotely, or consistently stream video, especially if there are multiple members of a household online at the same time. The CCRPC estimates that there are eight Williston homes without access to internet at all. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Williston homes are served at adequate broadband speeds, while a small minority (35 homes) are served at next-level fiber speeds, according to the CCRPC.
CCRPC Planning Program Manager Regina Mahoney is attempting to organize municipalities to create a “Chittenden County Communications Union District” (CUD), a new shared governing entity that could accept state and federal grants and lure an internet provider to build out service at the highest speeds to every home in the county.
Nine such entities have formed in Vermont, encompassing 208 member municipalities that are lining up for $116 million of broadband infrastructure funding that the Legislature authorized in Act 71 last spring. The legislation created the Vermont Community Broadband Board to help form and fund CUDs.
The board’s deputy director, Rob Fish, met with the selectboard on Tuesday to urge the town to consider working with neighboring municipalities to form a CUD.
“I see this as an issue of equity and access,” selectboard member Greta D’Agostino said, “and an opportunity for our town to be a leader.”
The board plans to vote in July whether to put a CUD question on the November general election ballot. A positive townwide vote is required from at least two municipalities to form a CUD. Once a CUD is formed, other municipalities can join by selectboard vote, Fish said.
“It is important that the region move on this quickly because the Vermont Community Broadband Board may reallocate the broadband funds for the Chittenden County municipalities to other regions if a good faith effort is not made toward using these funds in the region by November,” Mahoney wrote in a June memo to the selectboard.
There is no other viable path for unserved and underserved residences in Chittenden County to get high speed internet, she said. The formation of a CUD would also benefit those currently served at broadband speeds by bringing everyone up to the fastest (fiber) level of service.
“We hoped we wouldn’t have to do a CUD, but we’re at the point where it really doesn’t seem like there is a different solution. (It) is potentially the only way to get the public dollars to our communities to make this broadband expansion work,” Mahoney said.
Fish assured the selectboard that grant funding and revenue bonds would fund the CUD, while shielding property taxpayers from expenses and liabilities. It would operate similarly to other multi-municipal districts, such as the Chittenden Solid Waste District, he said.
Still, town leaders do not take the prospect lightly.
“Forming a new government is no small feat and being a town that steps forward to do it brings a lot of responsibility,” Town Manager Erik Wells said.