By Abby Carroll | Community News Service
Shelburne may join a communications union district to bring broadband to unserved and underserved homes in the area.
Voters will get to decide whether their town forms the area’s first district, an organization of two or more towns that operate as a municipal entity to build and deliver high-speed internet. Communications union districts have become increasingly popular since 2015, when state legislators created the mechanism.
The Shelburne Selectboard voted July 26 to put the question on the ballot for November.
“This is an equity issue, a business issue, I think a development issue, so we can attract new residents to a place where they can work remotely or start a business that requires really stable, high-speed internet,” selectboard member Cate Cross said.
The board listened to a presentation on July 12 by Rob Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board. He discussed how communications union districts work and the benefit they can bring to towns.
Communications union districts can benefit towns by combining areas of need to make them more desirable to carriers, Fish said. Service providers tend to be more interested in serving larger populations than small, spread-out groups, he said.
And these unions can mitigate financial risk for towns and taxpayers, addressing a common roadblock to broadening local internet access.
The districts have no taxing power and are funded only by grants and revenue bonds. This means there is no cost to taxpayers, Fish said, and towns are not required to use American Rescue Plan Act money to fund the project.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for internet access and broadband. Remote school and work require internet connections that support streamed meetings. Many people, especially those in remote areas farther from town centers, have found it challenging to stay connected.
Fish said building out fiber-optic cable to homes is the only way to provide 100 megabits per second download and upload speeds — a common goal for broadband advocates. The federal minimum definition for broadband is 25 megabits per second download speed and a 3 megabits per second upload speed. Fish said 92 percent of addresses in the state don’t have access to those speeds.
“Cable can provide the download speeds, (but) it cannot provide the upload speeds,” Fish said. “Telehealth, distance learning, remote work, even these Zoom meetings depend on the upload speed.”
Fish said 104 addresses in Shelburne lack a speed of 100 megabits per second by 20 megabits per second, and 3,272 addresses in Shelburne are without a speed of 100 megabits per second for uploads and downloads.
Nine districts in Vermont currently serve 208 member towns and more than half the state’s population.
When the districts first grew in popularity, Shelburne was not recommended to form or join a union because Chittenden County is better served than other areas of Vermont. But in many towns, there are pockets of people who struggle to reliably access the internet, including Shelburne.
Selectboard members said the idea seemed to require little risk for huge rewards.
“I didn’t see any downsides at all, and (there’s) lots of potential upsides,” selectboard chair Michael Ashooh said.
Town leaders said forming a union district does not guarantee the town will receive a grant, but the opportunity for improvement was worth putting it on the ballot.
The community’s response at the ballot box, as well as the response from possible partner communities, will decide whether Chittenden County gets a district.
Other towns, including Essex and South Burlington, are considering joining the union. Two towns are needed to create a union district, and other towns can join later through a vote of their selectboard.
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.