Bennington County towns consider forming communications district

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Residents of at least nine Bennington County municipalities will vote at town meeting on whether to become founding members of a communications union district that potentially would bring high-speed internet to the region.

Select Boards in Manchester, Shaftsbury, Sunderland, Sandgate, Rupert, Arlington, Bennington, Dorset and Woodford have voted to place the item on their respective town meeting ballots for 2020.

The district would allow participating towns to collaborate on planning, constructing and operating a broadband network that would reach underserved areas.

Federal regulators have defined minimum standards for broadband as 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. About 80 percent of Bennington County locations receive Internet service that meets or exceeds those standards, according to state data from 2018.

Property owners like John Dyck and Beth Hardesty, who live on Harrington Road, are not so lucky. Internet service to their home currently allows for 2.8 Mbps for downloads and 0.7 Mbps for uploads, Dyck told the Bennington Select Board last month, according to CAT-TV footage.

"Streaming is bumpy, awkward" and often ends abruptly, Dyck said. Service can be inconsistent — his household has gone without it for week-long spells in each of the last three years, he said — and inducing the provider to send a technician amid an outage is no easy feat.

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"It has become clear to us that private providers have little or no interest in working with us," Dyck said, explaining his interest in a potential new option.

Shaftsbury Select Board Chairman Tim Scoggins said the local effort started with a meeting convened in Manchester by state Rep. Kathleen James to talk about opportunities presented by Act 79, a bill signed this summer by Gov. Phil Scott that relates to expanding broadband across the state. Since then, a task force that includes public officials and residents throughout the region has met twice in Sunderland to discuss the project, he said.

Nearly half of the 260 Shaftsbury residents who responded to an online survey this year characterized their Internet service as either "way too slow" or "not fast enough."

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Act 79 funded the new Broadband Innovation Grant program, which awards up to $60,000 to various kinds of entities, including communications union districts, to conduct feasibility studies on broadband deployment and develop business plans. Winners of the program's first round of funding included a Central Vermont district established in 2018 and the Windham Regional Commission, which will consider the possibility of creating a district for its more than two dozen member towns.

Two future funding rounds — one open only to utilities and another open to a broader array of candidates — are scheduled for 2020.

Supporters of the local initiative say there is little or no risk to a town in joining the district, which cannot rely on taxpayer funds. A delegate from each member town would serve on the district's governing board.

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"The taxpayer and town are not required to pay anything to be a part of the communications union district," though the entity "may ask the town to provide space for a communications plant used to store fiber optic cable, electronics and other assets required to operate the [town's] network," according to a Vermont Public Service Department slideshow available online. Towns cannot be held responsible for districts' debts.

Districts typically finance system improvements through revenue bonds, according to Eric Hatch, a member of the local task force.

The district would likely enter into "a management contract with a reliable party to design, build and operate the system," Hatch said. "It is highly unlikely that a CUD will chose to operate its system with in-house resources. The economics and efficiencies are such that outsourcing makes more sense."

Districts require at least two founding member towns. Municipalities that do not hold town meeting votes on the item may later join through a select board vote, according to the Public Service Department.

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