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5 municipalities in Chittenden County form new communications union district


A shipment of fiber optic cable is delivered to the Washington Electric Co-op in East Montpelier on Thursday, April 21, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Essex, Essex Junction, Shelburne, South Burlington and Williston are banding together to form a new communications union district. 

Such districts are the foundation of Vermont’s plan to cover nearly every address with high-speed fiber-optic internet connections. The districts allow cities and towns to join forces when negotiating contracts with providers.

For these five cities and towns, the challenges of getting connected are distinct from those in rural parts of Vermont, where many places have no broadband connection at all. In Chittenden County, most homes have some kind of broadband, just not fiber-optic connections, which provide the fastest internet.

Formation of a communications union district requires the approval of voters in a city or town. On Nov. 8, 89% of voters in the five municipalities, which are not served by Burlington Telecom or Waitsfield Valley Telecom, voted in favor of the district. 

With the addition of the five Chittenden County communities, 213 of Vermont’s 252 cities, towns and gores are now part of a communications union district. 

“Chittenden County is a bit unique,” said Robert Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, the organization in charge of getting the state covered with fiber-optic cable. ”Most of the underserved addresses are at the end of roads.” 

Fish said many addresses in the five cities and towns are already served by some kind of broadband, but many do not have access to the high-speed fiber-optic broadband the state is aiming for. 

“These towns are seeing the rest of the state getting their act together and moving towards having a plan towards having fiber connections,” Fish said. 

Fish said the next steps are for each town to choose a representative and an alternate to the communications union district, and to study various options for covering everyone in the five communities with fiber. Neighboring towns have expressed an interest in joining the district, Fish said. 

The Center on Rural Innovation, founded by Matt Dunne, who previously served in the Legislature and ran as a Democrat for governor, will perform the study. The group has already performed studies for other communications union districts. Fish said the study involves designing the network, talking to existing and potential providers, and determining costs. 

Before forming the communications union district, the five cities and towns were trying to address fiber optic connections on their own, according to Fish. 

In South Burlington, less than 1% of homes do not have broadband, said Deputy City Manager Andrew Bolduc. 

“We have a couple of pockets in our southeast quadrant, but that’s about it,” Bolduc said. 

Initially, he said, the town predicted that private companies would eventually cover everyone. But as regulations changed, it became apparent that state funding, using federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Biden last year, would go only to communications union districts. It also became apparent, Bolduc said, that it is easier for private companies to have one point of contact rather than five different municipalities. 

“If we want access to that funding or a seat at the table with providers as they build their network, the best way to do that was to form a CUD,” Bolduc said. 

Many single-family homes built in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s have basic broadband and no competition between providers, he added. 

Williston is also looking to tie in those homes that have been without service.

“We’re a bit unique in that we have these smaller pockets of households that don’t have access,” said Williston Town Manager Erik Wells. He estimated that around 140 homes do not have access to any broadband. 

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