Initiative looks to expand fiber-optic internet access in Derry, Weston In time of Covid-19, high speed service vital to education, public health, business

<small>Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash</small>

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

By Cherise Madigan
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders, Vermonters in some towns are feeling the lack of high-speed internet more than ever.

While some area towns like Chester and Andover have had fiber optic for several years because Vtel received a federal grant to wire those towns, for many other rural communities, access to fast and reliable internet is limited and often pricey.

The Deerfield Valley Communications Union District (DV CUD) hopes to change that, and make fiber-optic internet a reality for residents in all of its 15 current member towns spanning southeastern and central Vermont. Londonderry became a member of the CUD on July 15 with Ellen Seidman as its representative, and the Weston Select Board is considering joining as well.

“The key to this is that it isn’t dependent on satellites or big mega-firms,” said Vice Chair Steven B. John. “It isn’t dependent upon Comcast and what their business model is and what they want to do. It’s really under our own authority as a collection of towns, and that’s the way we think we can meet the needs of every resident — even part-time residents — and business in our communities.”

In 2015, the Vermont legislature passed a statute that allowed for the formation of Communication Union Districts — municipal entities that allow towns to work together to expand telecommunications infrastructure. Fifteen CUDs have been founded since then, including Deerfield Valley.

Another is the Southern Vermont Communications Union District that operates in Bennington County — including nearby towns Peru, Landgrove, and Manchester — and aims to achieve similar goals. Due to shared infrastructure and geographic features between the two districts, the Deerfield Valley and Southern Vermont CUDs have worked together closely, according to John.

“Just as the roads follow the rivers, the fiber is going to follow the roads,” he said, noting that the CUD does not intend to establish its own rights of way but rather utilize those already in place for other utilities like Green Mountain Power.

Formally established in early April, the DV CUD began its work soon after the Covid-19 pandemic was forcing many schools and businesses to close their doors. As so many people from all swaths of life are now required to navigate an increasingly virtual world, John said, the CUDs work has become increasingly timely.

“There hadn’t been any sort of rush to get this done,” John said. “Now, parents with kids and people who are homebound are realizing they’ll have to attend their classes or medical appointments online. That causes everyone to be pretty driven to move as quickly as possible.”

“Londonderry already had an internet deficit,” added Londonderry CUD rep Ellen Seidman. “As a result of Covid, the problem has been exacerbated; we are more reliant than ever on the internet for basic needs and have few alternate sources.”

Some Vermont CUDs have taken issue with a $2 million emergency assistance program announced by Gov. Phil Scott in July, also aimed at expanding internet access. Spurred by the pandemic, the initiative has attracted attention from major cable companies that may compete with the not-for-profit, grassroots CUDs.

The community organizations have also expressed concerns about equitable access, because traditional internet providers are economically incentivised to prioritize wealthier areas — as any business is. From John’s perspective, however, it’s possible that the two initiatives can function symbiotically.

“We want to make sure the money goes to the underserved — the school kids who don’t get a good enough connection for remote learning or the people who are now getting their medical care online,” John said. “We certainly don’t want to stand in the way of anyone getting connected in any way they can, and I’m glad it’s happening for some people, but it’s not happening for everyone.”

That divide has become apparent in areas like education, with many schools conducting classes virtually to some degree since the pandemic began in March. Though Flood Brook School in Londonderry has a “terrific network,” according to Principal Neal McIntyre, ensuring educational equity has become a significant consideration for the school in the age of remote learning.

“We end up needing to plan largely asynchronous learning experiences because we know that many household networks cannot handle live streaming,” he said. “If we all had access to a fiber-optic network, then we wouldn’t be limited in the ways we can use the amazing diversity of educational tools that are available … (the school could) push the boundaries of distance learning.”

“Right now we need to plan for the lowest common denominator in regard to internet access,” McIntyre said.

The initiative could also improve towns’ ability to communicate with residents during an emergency, said Londonderry Emergency Management Director Kevin Beattie. Currently, the Town of Londonderry relies on multiple outlets to disperse time-sensitive information during an emergency, one of which is the Londonderry Community Forum on Facebook. Beattie says he relies on the Facebook group quite a bit as it has more than 2,700 members and — as many locals know — word travels fast on the forum.

Another outlet utilized by Beattie is a town-wide email list with approximately 800 members, which is also effective for emergency information. Access to both, of course, is dependent upon a reliable internet connection.

While the Windham Regional Commission is also working to address the lack of connectivity — most recently by working with local select boards, including Londonderry and Weston, to place wi-fi boosters in public places like town offices — there’s no substitute for reliable home access for all, a goal the commission shares with the DV CUD.

So, now that Londonderry has joined the DV CUD, with Weston potentially following suit, what’s next? According to John, the organization is awaiting a report created by the Windham Regional Commission that will advise the CUD on how to build a sustainable business model. Representatives from member towns will then formulate a business plan based on the report and a feasibility study conducted this spring, which lays out a multi-year timeline for laying fiber in phases.

While the ultimate order in which towns will be addressed will largely be dictated by economic need, geography and opportunity will also play a role. That, John explains, is why it’s advantageous for towns to join the CUD before work has begun. One of the first steps will be a pole study, cataloging the health of existing telephone poles throughout the district.

Though there is still a long road ahead, CUD volunteers are optimistic about Vermont’s unique opportunity to embrace a public-private partnership and make it economically feasible to provide high-speed internet access to even the most remote residents — with no liability for taxpayers or local governments.

“The Vermont Public Service Department’s decision to create CUDs that use a public-private partnership approach is proactive,” Seidman said. “It is based on an understanding that the state’s economic competitiveness depends on broad access to digital infrastructure. Like it or not, everything from home values to educational outcomes depends on internet access.”

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Filed Under: Business & Personal FinanceBusinessesCommunityCovid 19 CoverageFeaturedLatest NewsLondonderryWeston

About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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  1. Bob Wells says:

    “Fiber Optic For All” is everything! Economic growth. Educational equality. Effective tele-medicine. All of us should do all we can to spur this initiative forward. The future of our communities, not to mention all of Vermont, hangs in the balance.

  2. Ann Garrett says:

    I don’t see anything about Windham?? I have been doing battle with Fairpoint and Consolidated for way too many years. I talked with VTEL several years ago, finally I reached the President. He told me VTEL owns half of my property, Fairpoint the other half!!! Fairpoint (Consolidated) was here first. Shouldn’t it be my choice??