Broadband needs to be measured in survey

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BRATTLEBORO — Mail recipients here will get surveys intended to get a better idea of the community's broadband needs.

The surveys are described by Windham Regional Commission as "a key component" of a feasibility study on forming one or more Communications Union Districts (CUD). Digital versions can be found on windhamregional.org/broadband or brattleboro.org and paper versions are available in Brattleboro at the Municipal Center, Brooks Memorial Library and Gibson-Aiken Center.

The Windham Region Broadband Project is being funded by a $60,000 Broadband Innovation Grant as a way to look at "how to best implement broadband service to unserved and underserved communities," according a summary sheet from the commission. ValleyNet and Rural Innovation Strategies Inc. are providing technical assistance, and the commission is leading the outreach effort.

Communities would individually decide whether to join the CUD, which would act similarly to a municipality. Brattleboro Select Board members previously discussed their intention to stay involved in the process.

On Tuesday, Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland was appointed to serve as the town's representative to the commission's initiative. He recalled conversations beginning in late 2018 after a library staff member told the board about communities building municipally-owned fiber optic broadband services. He said the board sent town staff on a mission to explore such options.

In September, Moreland brought the board a report detailing different projects in New England and the levels of service found throughout Brattleboro. Board members asked town staff to continue participating in regional discussions.

The Windham Region Broadband Project officially kicked off last month. Sue Westa, senior planner at the commission, estimated more than 60 people attended a meeting in Newfane.

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"There seems to be lots of interest," she told the Select Board. "I'm getting calls all the time ..."

She said towns were asked to submit resolutions signaling their interest in participating in the initiative and to assign a representative if they were. Last week, there was a workshop focused on strategies for getting as many people as possible to take the surveys, which are due March 17.

Westa expects the feasibility study will be completed by the end of April. It will look at the use of CUDs that have been used to develop broadband projects in other regions, according to the summary sheet, and a feasibility plan will identify how many and what kind of CUDs "make the most sense to provide region-wide broadband coverage based on geography and existing services."

Westa anticipates a business plan will be ready by July or August. She said only two towns will need to vote at their annual town meetings to start a CUD, then other communities can join by the vote of a select board. She expects a district would have its own board with at least one representative from each of the towns, making decisions including about whether to apply for grants and loans.

Westa said towns would not provide the financing; individual subscribers would. Moreland described property tax dollars or sales tax revenue as being "utterly unwelcome" in a CUD. The only recourse for investors would be the assets of the district, he said, later adding that the municipality's assets would not be at risk if the project failed. He also assured the Select Board that town staff would run any proposal by the town attorney before coming back with a recommendation on whether to join.

Westa said the grant money obtained for the initiative can only be used for fiber broadband projects.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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