WILMINGTON — “Do you have something to say? Are you just frozen with your hand up?” DVFiber Chair Ann Manwaring asked while taking a vote during the annual online meeting of the communications union district (CUD).
“I think I'm frozen on your screen,” a member called out.
Manwaring shook her head.
“These are the joys of virtual meetings and absolute evidence about why we need to get to work and get this system done,” she said.
Despite the frozen video images, the CUD members succeed in voting to accept Townshend into the district.
The town's representative to the district, Bob DeSiervo, thanked the group and said that approximately 40 percent of Townshend homes lack good access to the internet.
Last year, he said, it became commonplace to see three or four cars parked outside the Townshend Public Library so remote workers and students could access the Wi-Fi.
Townshend's membership brings the number of towns involved in the CUD to 23.
In 2015, the state authorized the creation of communications union districts, community-led initiatives to bring high-speed (broadband) internet to underserved areas. The districts are governmental units similar to a school district or water district.
In 2019, the Legislature provided funding to support planning and provide technical assistance for the CUDs, which are charged with providing universal access to broadband, starting from creating a business plan and pricing structure to negotiating contracts with internet providers to build and deliver the service.
Once completed, the new network will be paid for through local subscriber fees.
Nine CUDs operate across Vermont and represent 187 of the state's 255 towns, said Manwaring.
DVFiber - officially the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District - has already issued a request for proposals from prospective vendors and is currently negotiating with some that responded. The group plans to announce its vendor choice this summer.
According to Manwaring, DVFiber aims to bring internet speeds to its customers of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for both uploads and downloads.
Manwaring, John re-elected
During the annual meeting, DVFiber members re-elected Chair Ann Manwaring of Wilmington and Vice-Chair Steven John of Marlboro to their second terms.
The members appointed Donna Sebastian of Wardsboro as clerk, David Jones of Halifax as assistant clerk, and Paul Butler of Marlboro as treasurer.
When asked why she keeps returning to the volunteer work, Manwaring said, dryly, “Still looking for that answer.”
John, the former superintendent of the Windham Central Supervisory Union, said his experience in the school system serves as a reminder of how internet access can affect a student's ability to learn.
“Regardless of economic means, many parents simply can't get cable and telecom companies to get connected or improve their service,” he wrote in an email.
John also has firsthand experience with how slow internet impacts remote workers.
“My wife and I cannot Zoom remotely at the same time. We draw straws, and one of us has to drive to the school's hotspot,” he said. “The school is connected to fiber, so why can't we as local residents have the same service?”
“We have waited far too long to bridge the digital divide. We must think broadly and inclusively about all locations in Vermont,” John continued.
John joined his local volunteer broadband committee over three years ago. In June 2019, the committee asked the Selectboard to appoint an official group called the Marlboro Committee for Universal Broadband (MCUB). The Selectboard also appointed John to chair the MCUB.
The MCUB collected proposals for a town-level broadband build-out, but financing and the ability to control customers' costs proved difficult, John said.
The MCUB asked the Selectboard to put joining DVFiber to a townwide vote in 2020, as an alternative to the town going it alone.
“Vermont's CUD legislation makes universal high-speed internet possible,” John said. “DVFiber will get the job done.”
But will the funding to get a CUD project off the ground come through from the state?
“The answer to that question will determine 1) how fast DVFiber can connect every home or business, and 2) how affordable we can make the customer's monthly fee for service,” he said.
Manwaring also informed the members that she had recently filed an application for a $147,000 grant from the state.
If approved, the funding will pay for professional and legal assistance to usher the CUD through the rest of the RFP process and get the district and its identified vendor to the contract stage.
She said the grant would also pay for a part-time staff liaison to work with the vendor starting on July 1, she said, noting that this added funding would also support grant writing as well as customer management and outreach tasks.
According to Manwaring, the grant funding is part of the state's COVID-19 relief funding that the Legislature approved last month. The Legislature is also considering additional funding to accelerate the rollout of community broadband initiatives in a bill, H.360.
The bill, filed by the House Committee on Energy and Technology, “proposes to coordinate, facilitate, support, and accelerate community broadband deployment throughout Vermont,” according to its text.
The legislation is now in a conference committee, which reconciles differing versions passed by the House and Senate to produce a final, identical version that both bodies will consider.
At issue are amendments proposed by a group of four senators, including Windham County Sen. Jeanette White. The House, on a May 13 vote initiated by Dover Rep. Laura Sibilia, refused to concur and appointed the conference committee.
DVFiber belongs to a statewide association, the Vermont Communications Union Districts Association (VACUDA) that has the goal of ensuring reliable, affordable high-speed internet service to its member towns by 2027.
VACUDA is urging lawmakers to approve H.360.