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MONTPELIER — How might a bill being drafted in a state House of Representatives committee succeed where other initiatives failed in finally bridging Vermont’s digital divide?

The game-changing element, according to the effort’s supporters, comes down to an essential Vermont quality: self-government, in the form of locally chartered, volunteer-staffed Communications Union Districts (CUDs), empowered by state law to behave as municipal utilities in finding solutions to the lack of high-speed service in rural areas.

The bill, which is being written by the state House Committee on Energy and Technology, would give a newly-created public authority the ability to lend funds to CUDs — the local government entities authorized by an act of the Legislature in 2019 to tackle a digital access gap affecting about one out of every five Vermonters.

The primary aims of the bill are “ensuring broadband availability to all Vermonters and Vermont addresses” and “ensuring public accountability for maintaining and upgrading critical broadband infrastructure” by making it possible for the CUDs to obtain technical assistance and revolving loan funds from the state’s economic development lender — so long as they assure universal access and do their business planning homework.

State officials estimate that about 23 percent of the state doesn’t meet the federal benchmark for high-speed internet access — 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads.

Windham and Bennington counties both have CUDs in place, with volunteer board members representing each member town. According to their board chairs — Tim Scoggins, of the Southern Vermont CUD, and Ann Manwaring, of the Deerfield Valley CUD — they are considering working together, either through a merger or as separate entities cooperating on a single project.

A consultant’s feasibility study recommends the Southern Vermont CUD, representing Bennington, Manchester and 10 other towns, either explore a partnership with Consolidated Communications or merge with the 15-town Deerfield Valley CUD.

Manwaring said the Deerfield Valley board is set to discuss what amounts to a memorandum of understanding with the Southern Vermont CUD on Wednesday.

“There is a commitment on both of our parts,” Manwaring said. “When you look at the map we’re literally joined together here. When you string a wire along a pole, town boundaries are not the essential geographic entity. It’s how fiber lines run along a road.”

OLD PROBLEM, NEW SOLUTION

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the gap between digital haves and have-nots, and what it means for Vermont communities where high-speed access is not available.

“What we’ve seen the last 10 months is that the pandemic has widened the opportunity gap for Vermonters between those who have access to broadband and those who don’t,” Rep Tim Briglin, D-Windsor-Orange 2, said during a news conference with House Speaker Jill Krowinski earlier this month.

“It’s the difference between being able to go to school and not go to school, being able to see your doctor or not have access to health care, being work from home or not be able to attend to your job,” said Briglin, the chairperson of the House Energy and Technology Committee.

What went wrong? Several point to federal policy on broadband infrastructure, which presumed that market forces and free enterprise would encourage network build-out. In Vermont, that’s not what happened; rather, Briglin said, the state saw “a market failure.”

“The private sector wants to make money, and the last people to get internet service are not profitable,” said Tim Scoggins, chairperson of the Southern Vermont CUD. “That’s where government should step in.”

Where CUDs are different, lawmakers and officials say, is they’re set up to behave more like a public utility, with service to the community rather than profit as their principal goal.

“The whole point of CUDS as municipalities is they give us a commitment to serve all members of our community. It’s our mission,” said Manwaring, a Wilmington resident and former state representative.

Act 79 of 2019, the bill that allowed the creation of CUDs, also allowed those bodies to enter into public-private partnerships with private Internet service providers. It also created the Broadband Innovation Grant Program within the Department of Public Service, and established the Broadband Expansion Loan Program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority.

“There had never been a path forward for rural residents or businesses that don’t fit the return on investment model that commercial investors are required to operate by,” Manwaring said. “This is a path to get beyond that. Much more, it’s a utility that is about and served by everyone, and not just another market-driven service, if you can get it.”

NEW SOLUTION, OLD PROBLEM

A of lack digital access is not a new problem in Vermont; nor is the resolve to fix it. It’s transcended time and political affiliation.

In November of 2011, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, promised that every Vermont home and business would have broadband internet access by the end of 2013.

In his 2007 inaugural address, Shumlin’s Republican predecessor, Gov. Jim Douglas, predicted the state would be connected to high-speed service by 2010.

“Let’s face it, if it were easy or affordable, we would have done it by now,” Scott said last month in his budget address. “Though the state has made steady progress, the reality is that it’s hard and very expensive to get to the last mile.”

Scott proposed $20 million in one-time spending within his fiscal 2022 budget addressing the problem. The package includes $2.5 million for extend internet to more Vermont homes; $1.5 million to help local utility and CUDs plan for broadband buildout; and a nearly $16 million fund for broadband grants and loans.

“I believe this is the best way to get ready for future federal dollars,” Scott said in his budget address.

The Energy and Technology Committee proposal goes farther in creating a public agency with the power to access funding from the Vermont Economic Development Agency (VEDA), the state’s public economic development bank. Act 79, the 2019 bill that opened the door for CUDs, also created a broadband expansion loan program of up to $4 million within the agency.

The newly created Vermont Community Broadband Authority would provide access to VEDA’s revolving loan funds and technical expertise to help the CUDs deliver the last-mile high speed internet access that the private sector couldn’t or wouldn’t provide.

Key to that effort, and a topic of discussion in committee hearings, is assuring that those plans allow for universal access, and that there’s accountability baked into the plans, said Sibilia.

PRIVATE PARTNERS?

As the committee presses ahead with drafting the bill, it has heard testimony from some telecom providers who are concerned that they’ll be denied equal opportunity to participate.

“Stowe Cable Systems is already positioned on the last mile fringes of [Stowe and Stockbridge] and feels that if the goal is to quickly roll out broadband services to unserved and underserved residents in the last mile, then equal funding for those with the expertise and who are already providing a quality broadband product would help to expedite this goal,” said Rick Rothammer, the president of Stowe Cable Systems.

In written testimony, Roger Nishi, of Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom, said the state’s independent carriers are concerned about “a lack of parity and equity in the proposed treatment of providers of last resort.” And the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, in written testimony, said the bill “narrows eligibility requirements” for obtaining state funding and “seeks to establish and fund new and unproven governmental structures, while largely freezing out incumbent service providers who are often able to quickly act on broadband buildout projects.”

“We would ask that in addition, guardrails be placed on funding to ensure that the majority of funding be directed specifically to physical infrastructure and prioritization be towards those entities that can build the infrastructure as soon as possible,” the chamber said.

But Sibilia, Manwaring and Scoggins pointed out that under the bill, providers are free to join in partnerships with CUDs. And they said their sympathy for providers who have resisted investing in infrastructure for years is limited.

“Exclusion is a choice they’re making,” Sibilia said. “Any broadband provider is able to participate — but they need to be working with a CUD. It’s our answer to assuring there’s accountability in getting to the last mile.

“We want accountability and universality.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

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