Utility worker unwinds cable from large spool
Contractors for Consolidated Communications install fiber optic broadband internet cables on utility poles in Montpelier on April 5, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The state’s new 10-year telecommunications plan recommends that Vermont’s array of local broadband districts partner with established internet companies — and it favors fiber over other internet technology.

The nearly 400-page plan, adopted June 30 by the Department of Public Service, lays out a road map for the state to achieve its statutory goals of providing universal, high-speed internet and improved phone service.

Communications union districts — municipal bodies formed to offer broadband to member towns — are at the center of the plan. 

That’s unsurprising, given the state’s continued support for the districts as a way to address the disparity in internet services, particularly in more rural areas. 

But that puts pressure on the fledgling districts to be the answer to a problem that’s spanned gubernatorial administrations.

“Really firmly putting the ball in the CUDs court [is] exciting, especially when it’s paired with the huge amount of funding that is being provided to the districts,” said Evan Carlson, chair of the NEK Community Broadband district in the Northeast Kingdom.

At the same time, he said, that brings “a lot of eyes and pressure on the CUDs to be successful.”

Officials are supposed to adopt a 10-year telecoms plan every three years. The industry is so dynamic that the plans need regular updates, said Clay Purvis, who oversees telecoms for the public service department. But the previous plan was adopted in 2014. A delayed draft in 2018 was never adopted, and by 2019, officials had new statutory requirements to consider.

Work on the new plan began in January. It was put together by two firms: Rural Innovation Strategies and CTC Technology and Energy. 

“This one is really a blueprint for the communications union districts to do broadband,” Purvis said. It aligns with H.360, the $150 million broadband bill the Legislature passed earlier this year, he said. 

The plan calls the districts, also known as CUDs, “the best vehicle for bringing broadband to the last mile, where private entities have seldom or never been willing to build.”

For the most part, Purvis said, the plan is trying to address the remaining portion of the state lacking consistent service. About 51,000 homes in Vermont are either unserved or underserved, according to the report. 

The plan recommends districts be “eligible and targeted” for funding where they exist, obligated to pass every on-grid location, and responsible for complying with “best practices for network standards.” 

As another requirement for funding, the plan suggests districts should have to provide 100 megabits per second service for both uploads and downloads — a big jump from the 25/3 now considered high-speed — and target unserved and underserved premises “as directly as possible.”

The newly formed Vermont Community Broadband Board, led by former gubernatorial nominee Christine Hallquist, will send out that money and make decisions about how the plan is carried out.

Some have criticized the plan’s lack of a timeline and specifics, Hallquist said. “But I guess I see that as the job of the CUDs and the Vermont Community Broadband Board,” she said.

[This week’s Deeper Dig podcast: How to spend a broadband windfall.]

For the outside plant portion of the proposed fiber network — everything outside the main hubs — the plan estimates construction will cost $392 million.  

The plan wants the state to incentivize the districts and private companies to work together to roll out broadband. Private internet providers would operate the networks, while the districts would own the assets. 

This “will result in bringing together the values expressed by public advocates and the state, like the need to reach the last mile, and the valuable experience and expertise of private network operators,” the plan said. “Together, this framework will result in a win-win for public entities, private businesses, and the end consumer.”

The document outlines a primary plan with two phases.

The first phase would provide funding for districts to update their business plans and put together early agreements with private companies.

The second phase aims to let the districts carry out those partnerships and create “high-level network designs demonstrating how they will target unserved and underserved premises.”

Despite wariness among observers toward existing internet companies, some district leaders believe the partnerships would provide accountability that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Ann Manwaring, chair of the DVFiber district in the Deerfield Valley area — including Marlboro, Whitingham and Wilmington — said the district ownership is key.

“As opposed to just kind of overseeing what the partner does … we have a much bigger stake in how it evolves and how it is operated in the long run,” she said. 

Her district voted this month to partner with an operator.

Carlson, with the Kingdom district, said his district shares that outlook. It’s been talking with companies about partnerships and focusing on finding those without the predatory values associated with big internet providers, he said.

“They understand that this is not a huge-margin business … and are going into this wide-eyed,” he said, and other districts should look for partners with track records and interest in building in underserved, rural areas like those in Vermont.

What happens next will be determined by how the new state board wants to move.

“Putting together a schedule might be getting ahead of ourselves,” Hallquist said. “The first thing we need to do is get funding out to these CUDs.” 

The first part of federal funds appropriated through H.360 was set to be available this month.

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in...