Twenty-two towns in the Northeast Kingdom so far have signaled support for asking voters to join a communications union district, a possible solution to the region’s longtime struggle for high-speed internet.
“The idea that there is a group of local people trying to solve the problem themselves, I think it has some reassurance instead of Montpelier trying to solve the problem for them,” said organizer Evan Carlson, who works with Lyndonville’s Do North Coworking center.
He and Katherine Sims, director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative, have been at the helm of the effort to bring a district to the area’s 55 municipalities. And they say the reception’s been enthusiastic so far.
“The common feeling is that selectboard members know that this is an issue that matters to their residents,” Sims said. “They might not have the capacity or expertise to move forward on their own, [so a communications union district is appealing].”
The Kingdom’s counties have some of the lowest availability of baseline broadband, or high-speed, internet 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%. Those access problems translate into barriers for businesses and for retaining people.
A communications union district is a type of governmental body created in 2015 that allows municipalities to join together to provide broadband service. Legislation lets a district obtain municipal bonds for the task, without direct financial risk for member towns, and a few exist elsewhere in the state.
Since the summer, advocates for forming a district have been visiting selectboards to pitch the idea.
The goal is to convince each board to place a question about joining a district on its Town Meeting Day agenda.
Most of the progress has been made in the southern half of the Kingdom.
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Carlson said 15 towns from Caledonia County and southern Essex County have either voted to place the item on their town meeting agendas or have committed to do so: Barnet, Burke, Concord, Danville, East Haven, Groton, Kirby, Lyndon, Newark, Ryegate, Sheffield, Stannard, Sutton, Waterford and Wheelock.
One notable outlier has been St. Johnsbury, the largest town in the Kingdom.
In late August, Carlson and Rep. Scott Campbell, D-St. Johnsbury, presented the idea to officials there, but board members had questions they wanted answered before they’d consider a vote.
“I believe they are still skeptical of the potential value it’s going to provide in a town that already has decent internet penetration,” Carlson said.
In Orleans and Essex counties, Sims said, eight towns have signed on or intend to: Albany, Barton, Brighton, Craftsbury, Coventry, Glover, Hardwick and Lowell.
Outreach in the Kingdom’s northernmost communities has been hard. “Some of it is probably just general communication that needs to be amplified,” Carlson said. “We’re hoping that through the initial formation of the CUD, that will attract some of the towns to participate.”
Across the Kingdom, town officials have asked about the risk to taxpayers, the cost to local governments, the mechanisms for leaving the district and how soon their towns might receive broadband coverage.
“We’ve tried to be completely honest with everyone, saying out of the gate: Our goal is to fund this with grants and other types of public funds,” Carlson said. “That said, there’s a chance that we would need storage inside of different towns for different infrastructure, and that’s something that might be asked of a town.”
Carlson and Sims said the timeline for rolling out broadband won’t be clear until a district is formed and studies can be commissioned.
The advocates said they’ll soon send out finalized language for towns to vote on for the Town Meeting Day ballots. A study is almost finished that would give organizers a better sense of how to structure the district — if they need one for the whole Kingdom, or two or three.
“We’re not going to solve this big, expensive problem overnight,” Sims said. “But we’re really excited to feel like there’s positive momentum moving forward.”
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