Business & Economy

Plans move ahead for NEK broadband internet service

Katherine Sims

Katherine Sims, director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

Broadband internet service in the Northeast Kingdom could be split between two communications union districts in the coming years — one for Caledonia County and one for Essex and Orleans counties.

That’s according to an action plan released Wednesday by the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative that provides more details on how leaders aim to tackle limited access to high-speed internet in the region. It builds on discussions at a June summit on broadband issues hosted by the Collaborative.

A draft map for the districts covers 55 cities and towns, with 24 in Caledonia County and the rest in the two counties to its north. Right now, those boundaries are more like a back-of-the-napkin sketch, Northeast Kingdom Collaborative Director Katherine Sims said.

“We’re trying to kind of work from both ends,” Sims said. “The long-term goal is to cover all 55 towns … At the same time, not every town in the Kingdom is ready to join a CUD tomorrow, so we’re starting where there is energy and momentum.”

To qualify as broadband, or high-speed internet, a fixed service needs a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second, the FCC says.

The Northeast Kingdom’s three counties have some of the lowest availability of 25-and-3 coverage in the state. Essex has the lowest rate at 21.7%, according to data from 2018. Orleans has the third-lowest at 50.6%, and Caledonia has the fourth-lowest at 51.2%.

A communications union district would allow towns to share services and puts any financial liability on the district, rather than on any one municipality.

Sims said efforts in the Lyndon area to build a 10-town district are an example of a place where energy and momentum already exist, and those plans have been folded into the wider, regionwide initiative. Evan Carlson, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Lyndonville’s Do North Coworking center, outlined the Lyndon-centric plan at the summit last month and is part of the Collaborative’s working group for the two communications union districts.

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But not every town in the region has had advocates working overtime toward increased broadband access, Sims said, so Collaborative members hope to increase awareness and education about the benefits of a district in outlier towns.

“We expect that the majority of communities will want to be part of this work,” she said.

Because of the number of towns in the region and its wide geographic range, a two-district plan is the most feasible option, she said.

Members of the working group have applied for three grants to help fund outreach efforts, according to Sims: The Northeastern Vermont Development Association has applied for grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Northern Border Regional Commission, while the Collaborative has applied to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.

If received, those grants would also support efforts to build larger funding proposals and to hire a professional consultant to help plan the districts, Sims said.

Construction for the proposed broadband networks could take place between 2022 and 2023, according to a timeline in the action plan, with services operating in 2024.

Sims said people interested in learning more about the project or joining the working group should reach out to the Collaborative.

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