Deerfield Valley district joins effort for federal broadband funds

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The Deerfield Valley Communications Union District is now in talks with other CUDs and utility providers around the state putting together a bid for federal broadband funds in a "reverse auction."

Board member David Jones said funds will be awarded to those with the lowest bids.

"But that doesn't mean you want to bid low," he said, as there will be service obligations involved with getting the money. "The funding is provided for specific locations in the census blocks and those in most cases are a subset of the total locations that are underserved."

Fourteen of 15 board members, including one alternate, voted in favor of joining the process Wednesday night during a remote meeting. Munson Hicks of Vernon abstained, citing a lack of information as he is new to the board.

Officially formed in April, the district's primary focus is to own and manage a fiber optic network in order to provide "affordable, reliable high-speed internet" that will support economic development and expand educational opportunities. The newest members of the district, Londonderry and Vernon, bring the total count to 15 communities.

The district was founded by Halifax, Marlboro, Stratton, Whitingham and Wilmington after each town had positive votes on annual Town Meeting Day in March. A new Vermont law allows for two or more towns and cities to create such districts for the delivery of communications services and the operation of a facility, and made grants and technical assistance available.

Ann Manwaring, board chairwoman, said the Federal Communications Commission is offering about $1.25 billion to expand broadband in unserved areas around the United States through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. The deadline for groups to join the process was Wednesday at noon.

A district committee speaking with vendors previously decided "there was as much reason for us to join as there was to not join," Manwaring said. But that changed after state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, reached out with some new information.

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Manwaring said the committee confirmed Vermont Electric Power Company and Green Mountain Power will be partners with Tilson Technology Management in entering the auction.

"And if we remained with our prior position," she said, "we would be the only CUD in Vermont not participating in one."

She said the committee signed an agreement at about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and received legal advice that boards can ratify actions that need to happen timely but face restrictions regarding Vermont's open meeting law.

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Not participating in the auction, Sibilia advised, "means that you all of a sudden have blinders and you don't know what is happening around you with potentially some very significant partners who are the CUDs." She said the groups will be bound by confidentiality agreements aimed at preventing people from "gaming the system."

The goal for the different groups is to develop a plan for building a network to submit as a bid. Sibilia said the district has five business days to withdraw if it does not agree with the direction of the plan. She spoke of wanting accountability from service providers and long-term quality assurance.

Jones described Tilson as "a fairly large and well-regarded firm," which started as a technology management consultant then expanded to designing and constructing broadband networks.

Paul Butler, district treasurer, raised concerns about the ability to finance construction bonds. To do so, he said, the district would need to own the system.

"I, at the moment, am feeling pretty agnostic as to whether in the end, we strike a deal with Tilson or whether we at some point in time withdraw from that and proceed in a different direction," said Patrick Moreland, board member representing Brattleboro. "I know we're just getting off the ground and we're just trying to get some grant money together, but we're going to need some technical assistance to effectively negotiate with those folks just to ensure we don't get taken to the cleaners."

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Rob Fish, rural broadband technical assistant specialist from the state Department of Public Service, said he would be speaking with the Vermont Community Foundation about such help Thursday.

The foundation was already expected to provide the district with a $10,000 grant. Manwaring said the district agreed that $2,500 would be spent on accounting and administrative work, $2,500 would go toward communications strategies and related items, and $2,500 would be for legal services.

"The last $2,500 has no commitment at this point," she said, anticipating it might be put to use for the federal funding bid.

Staff at Windham Regional Commission are developing a business plan after a recent study found that building a fiber network in the region would be feasible. Steven John, district board vice chairman, said the plan is anticipated to be completed toward the end of August.

"It is going to be a business plan for the DV CUD almost entirely," he said. "It will be assuming that most of the rest of the towns in the Windham region will decide to join with us."

John left the meeting early to speak with the Putney Select Board. Bill Esses voted in his place as an alternate board member for Marlboro.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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