Vermont is well known for its rich mountains and lush forests, but its landscape and century-old bridges might not suggest an innovative and unique approach to expanding broadband access. Unlike many municipal broadband models displayed across the country, which often begin with a single city or county developing a network that later expands outward, Vermont towns take a collaborative approach through organizations known as Communications Union Districts (CUD). 

CUDs are alliances of two or more towns that partner to deploy communication infrastructure. Of Vermont’s 246 incorporated municipalities, 174 are part of an existing CUD, while 40 are either working to become a member or were awarded state funding to conduct a feasibility study or create a plan. By working in partnership, towns and cities across the state have leveraged coordination to expand fiber access. 

While coordinated efforts have many advantages, these communities need funding to ensure that everyone in the state of Vermont has affordable, high-quality home broadband. NEK Community Broadband, one of the nine current CUDs, was formed in March 2020 and is made up of 32 towns spanning four counties in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Though the CUD was officially formed around the start of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the process began several years earlier, when community members began to notice gaps in broadband availability. 

For Evan Carlson, the Sutton Representative and Chair for NEK Community Broadband, the work began in 2017 during his time on Lyndon’s Economic Development Task Force. That year, the Town conducted a feasibility study and explored several options before settling on the current model. 

We took that recommendation and spent about a year developing and doing the grassroots organizing around a CUD and then on Town meeting day in March of last year, there were 27 towns across the region that voted to join. To get 27 towns to join a district like this in our area is a pretty big win and shows how big of an issue this is that everyone wants to move forward.

The CUD operates through convenings of delegates from each community. Committees are where local officials do the real “heavy lifting, like deciding on the most effective building routes and determining how to develop a phased plan to connect every address in the region.” Members then bring those ideas to governing board meetings, where they receive approvals or help inform upcoming opportunities.  

As more CUDs formed, the need for not only information sharing but also creating standardization across the districts emerged, which led to the Vermont Communications Union District Association’s (VCUDA) establishment. VCUDA is an organization of CUD leadership that meets on a biweekly basis to decide on core lobbying, develop standards, collect infrastructure data, and share progress on each of the projects.

One of the biggest advantages of CUDs, according to Carlson, is their role as a “mechanism for public accountability.” CUDs are volunteer-led municipal entities that are held to the same transparency standards as other governmental organizations. As NEK develops its network, Carlson says that infrastructure will be built with the next 30 years in mind, and that affordability for residents who cannot afford the full cost of service remains a top priority. 

According to Vermont’s Department of Public Service, 82.5% of residents do not have access to broadband at speeds of 100/100 Mbps, while 22.7% of the state remains disconnected from even minimum speeds of 25/3 Mbps. 6.8% of residents are unserved even by Internet speeds of 4/1 Mbps. The Vermont American Jobs Plan Fact Sheet, 66.5% of Vermonters live in areas where only one provider offers minimally acceptable speeds and at least 12% of households lack an Internet subscription. 

On March 24, 2021, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 145-1 to pass a bill that would make $150 million from the American Rescue Plan available for community broadband initiatives. In a statement on the House floor, Vermont Representative Laura Sibilia said:

Our efforts to connect have been repeatedly frustrated and uncoordinated. The pandemic has driven home just how much that failure to connect is costing Vermonters who need broadband for health care, for education, to connect to jobs and loved ones, and to be able to call for help. We need a paradigm shift in order to build broadband to the last mile in Vermont. This bill intends to provide coordination, to require accountability, to focus on universal service, not just connectivity to the most profitable customers.

The Vermont Department of Public Service is currently working on a 10-year telecommunications plan which introduces yet another opportunity to improve connectivity in the state. Beginning with two public input sessions, the Department is collecting information to improve the plan and will continue accepting written comments until June 30, 2020

Community collaborations like those in Vermont are critical to developing regional and state-wide broadband strategies, that can leverage shared resources and share expertise. 

Additional resources:

Vermont House Backs $150 Million Plan to Expand Internet Access (ILSR)

Briglin & Sibilia: Vermont’s rural electrification project for broadband (VTDigger)

Vermont House endorses $150M broadband bill (Bennington Banner)

Bill as Passed by the House H.360 (bill text)