Chittenden County communities to weigh in on broadband cooperation efforts

On Election Day, residents in five towns in Chittenden County will be voting on whether they want to join the county’s first Communication Union District.
Published: Oct. 24, 2022 at 8:34 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Residents in five Chittenden County towns will be voting next month on whether they want to join a Communication Union District.

There are nine CUDs in the state that represent a total of 208 towns that have banded together to help fund and construct broadband. Residents in the towns of Essex, Essex Junction, Shelburne, South Burlington, and Williston will be making that decision on Election Day.

The highly populated Chittenden County might not seem like the likeliest place where broadband is needed but state officials say 4% of Chittenden County addresses do not have high-speed internet.

“I would say that there seems to be some dead spots even in our own neighborhoods,” said Kerry Goulette of Essex Junction.

“I don’t have internet access at the moment. I am relying on a cell phone plan which can get expensive,” said Sophie Ward of Essex Junction.

Come Election Day, voters will decide whether to join forces and create a communication union district. Approval will require a yes vote from two or more towns.

Officials say 75% of the county is connected using cable companies like Comcast. “The cable companies don’t go where there’s under eight or six addresses per mile. It’s the business case hasn’t been there in the past for them,” said Rob Fish with the Vermont Community Broadband Board. He says CUDs have a more robust ability to access broadband resources, negotiate good deals, and aggregate demand for broadband to entice providers to continue their coverage.

Some CUDs construct their own fiber network. Fish predicts Chittenden County would likely go down a public-private partnership path to work with existing providers to build out the remaining areas.

Charlie Baker with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission says CUDs are funded by grants and revenue bonds and can’t raise taxes or use taxpayer funds. If the CUD is formed in these towns, residents don’t have to join and would only have to pay if residents choose to opt in for services. “It really is pretty fundamental right now to just participate in society, right? I mean, the last two and a half years certainly have shown us that, right? And places that didn’t have good broadband were really challenging, you know, for the kids to plug into school or to contact your doctor through telehealth,” Baker said.

“It’s a really, really important aspect of our everyday lives. It’s how we apply for jobs, it’s how we interact with people, and I think making that accessible for people is really really important,” Ward said.

But others are wary when it comes to working with other towns. “We -- as a public utility for broadband -- we really need to be supporting our own systems. So, I don’t want us to be wrapped up in other communities,” said Dan Kronlund from Essex Junction.

If a CUD is formed, other towns can vote to join in the future.