BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Regional Commission is getting $60,000 from the state to explore the potential for building a fiber network to serve all 27 of its member towns.
"We're very happy to have this opportunity to engage with the towns of the Windham region in the development of a feasibility study, and related business plan, to get high speed broadband to unserved and underserved areas," Chris Campany, executive director of the commission, said in an email to the Reformer. "We will be working with our partners, Valley Net and the Center on Rural Innovation, and the towns to pull together an organizing meeting in the coming weeks. Given the holidays we'll want to see what timing makes sense."
The study will look at the possibility of creating what the state has dubbed a Communication Union District and connecting 2,323 locations currently without access to broadband.
Sue Westa, senior planner at the commission, told the Reformer the next step is to get a contract in place with the state, then her group will reach out to all of the communities in the region. She anticipates a survey will be conducted to see who is interested in what could be a new broadband service.
Westa said her group did not require towns to "opt in" but instead asked for letters of support. The commission received 30 letters from 17 towns. Some towns had more than one group reply. Interest stakeholders submitted letters of interest.
On Friday, Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Public Service Department announced the recipients of grants through the state's new Broadband Grant Program. The program is the result of Act 79, legislation passed this year with the intention of expanding broadband infrastructure around the state.
"Vermonters' ingenuity and innovation have a critical role to play in addressing connectivity issues in many of our rural communities," Scott said in a news release. "The solutions we'll explore through these grant-funded projects will help us take important steps to improve broadband access, which in turn helps boost local economies, increase educational opportunities and enhance public safety."
The department "received significant public interest for the first round of grant funding," states the news release. "The winning projects represent the diversity of solutions that the Broadband Innovation Grant Program was created to support ... If the feasibility studies conclude that broadband expansion is economically feasible, then the award recipients will become eligible to receive additional funding to complete their actionable business plans."
CVFiber is set to receive $60,000 to complete a feasibility study and business plan for providing high-speed broadband with speeds of 25 megabits per second and 3Mbps upload. Newbury REDInet District will get $34,000 for a feasibility study and business plan to formalize a public-private partnership with Consolidated Communications to construct a town-wide fiber network.
State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said she expects that having the Windham Regional Commission actively engaged in coordinating with towns and groups of towns on projects will be "welcomed by volunteer citizens stepping forward to modernize our rural telecommunications infrastructure."
"A large number of our towns understand that there are long term challenges with the copper telephone network and that the for-profit internet providers are not likely to modernize communications infrastructure in the rural parts of the state," she wrote in an email.
Sibilia said she is aware of two potential Communication Union Districts in southern Vermont — a six- or seven-town group in the Deerfield Valley being coordinated by former state representative and Wilmington Select Board member Ann Manwaring, and a 10-town group in Bennington County being coordinated by Shaftsbury Select Board Chairman Tim Scoggins. She noted that representatives from Brattleboro, Rockingham, Jamaica and Guilford have also attended different "connectivity events."
"The Legislature was very intentional about adding another staff person at the state level to help these towns," she said.
During a September meeting in Wilmington about expanding broadband, State Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint credited Sibilia for her diligence on the issue.
"She came in with a plan, making sure that we could get a broadband bill through the House," Balint said of Act 79, "and was very diligent and persistent in making sure that we could get something to the governor's office."
Balint told the Reformer she was thrilled to hear about grant going to the commission.
"The first big step towards bringing broadband countywide is a comprehensive feasibility study, and that takes money — money that so many of our towns simply don't have," she said in an email. "This state investment in our rural communities is just what we had in mind for this grant program. I'm so very pleased."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.