On October 7, 2020

Band together for broadband

By Dr. Michael Shank

Many things in life are easier when done together. Whether it’s education, economic development, everyday chores or even emergency response, when you have more hands and more help, the work is more efficiently executed and more effectively implemented.

It takes a village to lighten the load and leverage our power. And we need that village now more than ever before. Why now? So that everyone in Vermont can be connected to reliable communications infrastructure. Right now, one-quarter of Vermonters have no access to high- speed internet and too many places in my Rutland County home have no cell service and no internet. That’s unacceptable. It’s leading to an urban-rural digital divide and it’s allowing one half of Vermonters to survive and thrive in this new remote reality, while the other half struggles to get basic bandwidth and stay connected.

Now, we could fix that problem, but it’ll take multiple villages, not just one. If we band together, we can send the message to communications providers – of high-speed internet and cell service, for example – that there’s demand in Vermont for better infrastructure. If we band together, we have more negotiating power and more leverage with the potential businesses that could bring us all fiber, which is significantly faster than cable or dial-up and would give us the most reliable communications infrastructure possible.

If we band together, we all win. Six towns in and around the Rutland Region have done this. They’ve banded together. The towns of Brandon, Chittenden, Goshen, Hubbardton, Pittsford, and Sudbury have all joined together to form what’s called a Communications Union District, or a CUD. And they proudly named it after one of Vermont’s prized natural resources, the Otter Creek.

While a “communications union district” is not a household name or concept, think of it like a solid waste district, or a water or sewer district, or an emergency medical service district. There’s a reason why towns come together on joint initiatives like this because they’re often ill-equipped or under-resourced to handle it on their own.

That’s why you band together. You band together to aggregate demand. You band together to access federal funding. And you band together to design a system more efficiently. All of this, consequently, benefits the entire region.

But only six towns have come together in and around the Rutland Region to create a communications union district. We need more if we want to improve our internet and cell service for the entire county. We need everyone on board if we want this to happen.

The benefits of doing this are clear. Better communications infrastructure not only increases the safety of our communities and the necessary infrastructure for telemedicine, it opens up many more educational and economic development opportunities.

First, and most importantly, it improves security and peace of mind while traveling throughout Vermont, and critically supports our first responders and emergency personnel, as there are too many places currently where a stranded car and stranded driver could be life threatening in the dead of winter or the heart of a hurricane.

Second, and equally importantly, it gives all of our residents potentially life-saving access to telemedicine and a secure mobile connection to their healthcare provider, which is increasingly critical during the age of Covid.

Third, it ensures that remote learning requirements mid-pandemic are reaching and serving everyone, as there are too many students right now struggling with assignments and focus, given poor internet speeds.

Fourth, it ensures that remote work and new business and investment opportunities are possible, as there is too much disruption and weak wifi right now to support the kind of video streaming, zoom calls and data bandwidth that’s required for today’s workforce.

Fifth, and finally, a well-connected Vermont says to the region and the country that we’re ready for the next tech revolution. There will be one soon. Technology is constantly changing. If we’re still in dial-up mode, however, we’ll miss out mightily and be quickly left behind. Our economy can’t afford that.

So, let’s band together.

Imagine if we had 25 towns and cities in and around Rutland County sitting at the negotiating table with companies wanting to bring in or scale up their communications infrastructure there. Imagine if tens of thousands of Rutland County residents were sitting at that table, too, demanding better service.

This is in our hands. Let’s band together and demand better broadband for all of Vermont. The time is now.

Michael Shank serves as the vice-chair of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission and the chair of the Brandon Planning Commission.

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