Vermont Congressman Discusses Status Of Broadband Buildout Across State
Congressman Peter Welch met recently with representatives of Vermont’s Communications Union Districts to discuss efforts to connect all Vermonters to high-speed internet.
Communications Union Districts – generally known as CUDs – were created in Vermont statute as a municipal organization that allows two or more towns and cities to jointly build and deliver broadband services. Most were formed in 2020 although the first was created in 2018. There are now nine across the state.
Congressman Peter Welch, a Democrat, told a recent virtual meeting of the Vermont Communications Union Districts Association that with the financial resources now available from the American Rescue Plan Act, policies must be honed to get the last mile installed.
“It’s one thing to have the political battle to get Congress to allocate resources with a policy that we future-proof we get high speed not second-rate internet in rural America and in some parts of urban America," Welch said. "But then each one of you is involved in the actual really practical challenges of how do you build that out? And it’s everything from those micro-policies about mapping to the conditions of the auction to the topography and the terrain of the particular area that you serve.”
CV Fiber currently serves 20 member communities in central Vermont. Chair Jeremy Hansen praised the Legislature’s allocation of ARPA funds to the districts so that shovel-ready projects can start.
“We are immediately as soon as funding is available," Hansen said. "I should also say the funding that’s coming through the towns is actually probably going to be coming as a quicker source of funds before we can get the state funds. But we’re going to be using that to do our pole audits and high level design in anticipation of construction. These are steps that can’t really be skipped. But we will be spending that as soon as we get it. We have the contractors ready and we will be hitting the pedal as hard as we can.”
The ARPA funds were intended to be distributed by the state to county governments and then allocated for broadband projects. But Vermont does not have county-based governments. Deerfield Valley Communications Union District vendor committee chair David Jones says while the ARPA money is exceedingly helpful the federal funding path must be streamlined.
“The fact that they were allocated as block grants and then administrated through the state and in our case the Public Service Department made it possible for those grants to be applied in a way that made sense here," Jones said. "And for our districts maintaining a cohesive and large service area is essential to our financial success. So I would strongly urge that funds be made in block grants to states which can then be administrated by the states.”
“The way that the legislation is written it goes to counties which doesn’t make sense in New England where we basically have municipalities and towns with the responsibility not county government," Welch said. "So we’ve got to figure that out. Once we do then those communities that are within your district are going to have some flexibility over the allocation of that money. It’s not just the General Assembly that will have that flexibility.”
Southern Vermont Communications Union District/Catamount Fiber Chair Jeff Such told the congressman that Southern Vermont is fairly unique in that it’s an area of the state that is well served and cabled with a relatively small population that lacks basic broadband. But he says while ARPA funds assures financial stability to move forward with projects, the regional CUDs still face challenges.
“The main constraint we’re all facing now is no longer necessarily financial but is the availability of labor and material resources," Such said. "Although we have build-outs on paper can be accomplished well within the time frames that these grant programs lay out that doesn’t mean that the actual availability of construction resources will be there to do so in that time frame. So whatever flexibility you are able to provide us in terms of elongating those time frames, and I think this actually applies more so to my colleagues elsewhere in the state than in southern Vermont itself, that would be greatly appreciated.”
Before adjourning in May, the Vermont legislature allocated $150 million for broadband deployment and Communications Union Districts across the state.