High-speed internet effort gains steam

If people want to move into the state and they want to telecommute, we want to make it super easy for them. — Steve Huffaker

ADDISON COUNTY — The work begun earlier this year to establish a public body to enhance high-speed internet in Addison County is going well, with 16 towns now signed on, $100,000 in federal money to support the effort, and many organizational details worked out, its backers said.

Challenges and decisions remain, including how to structure the Addison County Communications Union District, or ACCUD, they said, but at the same time it is reasonable to expect by sometime in 2022 its first customers could be served by new fiber-optic internet lines.

“It seems to me that it’s destined for success,” said ACCUD Board Chairperson Steve Huffaker, a Ferrisburgh resident who leads a board with a representative from each member town. 

“I’m confident that we’re going to end up delivering something that’s going to be a great benefit not only to Addison County, but to the surrounding areas.”

Addison County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Adam Lougee, whose organization is backing ACCUD, explained its mission.

“We would like to get fiber to the premises of all the underserved residences, all the underserved structures, in our service territory,” Lougee said. “Generally, it would be new fiber on existing poles.”

Huffaker, a retired former telecommuter, explained why he believes ACCUD is important for workers, businesses and schools.

“This is critical to the long-term viability, or social and economic prospects, for the state,” he said. “If people want to move into the state and they want to telecommute, we want to make it super easy for them.”

Some basics: A Communications Union District, or CUD, is a nonprofit, inter-municipal corporation that works to bring broadband to rural areas. It combines user fees, bonds and grants — but no taxpayer funding — to fund the fiber-optic lines needed to expand internet service. It is not unlike an inter-municipal water district.

Because ACCUD is a nonprofit, Lougee said, it can offer its services at reasonable rates, and can look at territory that for-profit firms might not view as lucrative.

“Given that we’re mission-oriented and don’t need as high a profit margin allows us to operate on smaller margins,” he said.

ACCUD has received $100,000 from the federal C.A.R.E.S Act, and possibly another roughly $40,000 on the way from that source; an initial $60,000 start-up grant from the Department of Public Service; and $10,000 from the Vermont Community Foundation, with another $20,000 possible there. 

The Vermont Economic Development Authority also has $8 million set aside to loan CUDs, and the county is eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture funding and loans, Lougee said. User fees can support loans and are a major funding source. Lougee said he would also be looking for civic-minded private investors as well as more government and grant support.

STRUCTURE

CUDs have already worked well elsewhere in Vermont, according to Huffaker and Lougee.

They said the most effective of the state’s nine or 10 CUDs is 9-year-old East Central Fiber, known as EC Fiber. It serves 26 towns in territory that runs east from Addison County to Hartford and south to Woodstock. Granville and Hancock joined that CUD. 

“They are going gangbusters,” Huffaker said. “They are building out about 250 miles of fiber a year. They’ve got a good, large group of happy subscribers.”

EC Fiber; its operating arm, Royalton’s ValleyNet; and Hartland’s Rural Innovation Strategies worked with ACCUD to develop a feasibility study that is now awaiting Vermont Department of Public Service approval. That OK is expected at any time. 

That study includes recommendations for business plans that could take ACCUD in two basic directions. 

Lougee explained one for ACCUD, which might end up calling itself Green Mountain Broadband.

“We have a couple paths forward. We are going to be potentially looking at entering into an operating agreement with an existing telecom so that we can get up and going faster. They already have customer service. They already have trucks,” Lougee said.

Huffaker outlined another option. Reaching a deal with an operator that would be familiar with the turf would have the advantage of allowing ACCUD to “hit the ground running,” he said. 

The downside is that much of Addison County is even more rural than turf served by other CUDs. It might make sense to join forces with another CUD with a denser population, even if that might slow the build-out. 

The case for that choice, according to the consultants, Huffaker said:  

“The bottom line for us ... is we really can’t go it alone. The magnitude of our business opportunity is not going to create a good business case. So the way to do it is either team up with an operator, or perhaps ally ourselves with an operation like the Otter Creek CUD down in the Rutland area.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Lougee said none of this will happen overnight.

“I would tell you building out the entire network is going to take millions of dollars and probably four to five years,” he said.

Once a business plan is finalized, Lougee said ACCUD officials will know more.

“That will be much more detailed as far as cost per mile, customer acquisition, and where do you start and those types of things. But we haven’t had those types of discussions yet. That will come with the business plan,” he said.

But both Lougee and Huffaker are hopeful ACCUD could serve its first customers in the first half of 2022.

“I’m optimistic. We’ve got a great team,” Lougee said. “The towns that joined all appointed really talented representatives. And those representatives are working really hard on their behalf. We’ve accomplished a lot in just a little bit of time in getting ourselves organized and putting ourselves in a position to be successful.” 

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