Connecting Vermont: Broadband rollout making progress

Published: Feb. 15, 2023 at 6:10 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2023 at 4:15 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Private and public partnerships are helping 214 Vermont towns get hooked up to broadband through a communications union district. Per Vermont statute, CUDs can’t be funded by general obligation bonds. There are 10 CUDs in the state and more than $124 million has been deployed in state and federal funding. The Vermont Community Broadband Board is looking for more funding options now, but officials are confident everyone will be hooked up in the next five to seven years.

Slowly but surely Vermont is chipping away at getting residents hooked up to high-speed internet.

“It’s been five years in the making and a lot of volunteer hours, a lot of support from towns,” said David Healy with CVFiber, one of the CUDs that includes 20 communities in Central Vermont.

It’s one of six CUDs currently in the construction phase, meaning crews are actively on the ground rolling out fiber optic cables. They’re starting in Calais, where 60% of residents still use DSL, including the town office.

“COVID really showed how bad it was. I mean, two people working with three kids or two kids-- it was a nightmare for most people in this town,” Healy said.

Connecting 400 miles in CVFiber’s territory cost $60 million in ARPA Infrastructure Act Funds and they plan to seek remaining funds from the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank.

Part of the cost is also being paid for by 13 of the 20 CVFiber member towns contributing ARPA funding their specific municipality was granted-- money that goes to construction in their town lines.

Healy said that doesn’t necessarily mean contributing towns get connected faster. They’re starting in Calais and working in both directions.

Reporter Melissa Cooney: For the towns that don’t put up ARPA funds, how does that work?

David Healy/CVFiber: They’ll get the service also... We’re trying to reach every unserved address in the district,” he said.

A financial model shows CVFiber needs about 40% of people to opt into the service, which would cost customers $79 a month.

There are two CUD models. For example, CVFiber owns and operates its network in conjunction with a partner and is building out its own lines. The other model, used by Southern Vermont CUD for example, partners with private companies like Consolidated Communications to build out the already existing fiber.

For decades, connecting the so-called last line has been a challenge for major providers because it’s expensive to connect houses that are so far away in rural areas. They get left out-- something Vermonters in towns across the state know well.

“It’s tough to find. You get a lot of leaflets from different companies, Fidium I think is a big one, but they’re not actually offering it in most towns,” said Liam Mulqueen-Duquette from Proctor.

Subsequently, some areas become more built out than others.

“It’s definitely a deciding factor when it comes to looking for property,” Mulqueen-Duquette said.

Progress has been made thanks to the millions of dollars deployed by the Vermont Community Broadband Board. A handful of CUDs already have a small number of customers online.

“It depends on when the CUD was created. CVFiber and Northeast Kingdom Broadband -- and of course ECFiber -- are the first three CUDs. Of course, they are in the construction phase. That doesn’t mean some of the newer ones aren’t getting there. Maple Broadband has connected some customers out in Addison County,” said Rob Fish with the Vermont Community Broadband Board.

Fish notes that they’re looking for up to $250 million in federal funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act.

He says connecting all Vermont homes to broadband is the largest infrastructure project in the history of the state and it’s impossible to know exactly how much funding is necessary to finish the job, considering variables like inflation. That’s something Vermont Gov. Phil Scott acknowledged at an early February press conference, too.

“I have a feeling that we’re going to get to a point where we’re still not at the last mile because it’s very expensive, very difficult to do. But at that point, who knows what the technology will bring forth and maybe they’ll perfect more satellite provisions with broadband to connect, but time will tell,” said Scott, R-Vermont.

But VCBB says they’re turning over every stone to find as much funding as possible.

“We’re confident that between the ARPA funds and the main funds and other funds that we can leverage, we will have enough to complete the construction. We may have to start getting to the rest of the revenue bond market but we’re determined to find and deploy as much grant funding as possible and to find as many low-interest loans rather than go to the bond market,” he said.

There was a push earlier in the year to dispute findings in the FCC’s broadband map, which the state said inaccurately represented how severe Vermont’s need for broadband was, causing it to miss out on millions of dollars. VCBB says they know a small percentage of the challenges have been accepted, but it’s a small percentage. They say they won’t know the full impact until June when there will be an announcement on funding allocations for each state.

For updates on a town’s CUD and progress, a state presentation can be found on their website.

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