By Brett Yates
Amid a statewide push for broadband expansion, Mendon has become the 12th municipality in the Otter Creek Communications Union District (CUD), thanks to a 3-0 vote by the town’s select board on March 23.
CUDs are municipal entities that allow Vermont’s cities, towns, and villages to band together to create financeable plans for high-speed internet in rural areas that might otherwise struggle to attract private investment in high-quality digital infrastructure. In 2015, the state codified the model established by the Upper Valley’s EC Fiber, a grassroots project whose community-owned fiber-to-the-home network now serves 5,000 customers across 31 towns, and in 2019 it launched a broadband innovation grant program that quickly spurred the development of several new communications union districts, including one in the Rutland area.
Brandon officially formed the Otter Creek CUD in 2020 with Goshen and, with the help of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, subsequently recruited Benson, Castleton, Chittenden, Fair Haven, Hubbardton, Pittsford, Rutland Town, Sudbury, and West Rutland. Rutland City is still weighing its invitation.
The CUD hopes to ensure universal broadband coverage in the region, with 100 megabyte-per-second upload and download speeds through fiber-optic cable. Once it has funding and a construction plan in place, it expects to contract an internet service provider (such as the nonprofit ValleyNet, which fulfills this role for EC Fiber, or a for-profit company) to build and operate the network. In order to benefit from economies of scale, however, it may first partner with an adjacent CUD.
CUDs cannot make use of municipal tax revenue. They can issue revenue bonds (to be repaid by customer subscription fees), but their member towns bear no responsibility for their debts. On March 23, the Vermont House of Representatives almost unanimously approved a bill that would establish a Vermont Community Broadband Authority to administer loans to CUDs, using $150 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Legislators have likened the initiative to the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration, which in the 1930s funded local utility cooperatives to string power lines across America’s farmland. According to the Dept. of Public Service, nearly 20% of Vermont 9-1-1addresses do not have access to “modern internet speeds” (defined as four megabytes per second for downloads and one megabyte per second for uploads).
Last year, a feasibility study by ValleyNet and Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc., identified gaps in broadband coverage in Rutland County, where Comcast and Consolidated Communications serve as the primary providers of cable and DSL, respectively, with VTel offering fiber connections in Killington and a handful of other municipalities. These gaps include the entire towns of Sudbury (pop. 560) and West Haven (pop. 264). In Mendon, 11.25% of residents lack access to cable, fiber, or DSL.
The Mendon Selectboard expressed some uncertainty as to what would come of the Otter Creek CUD’s efforts and wondered how much a fiber-optic network would help the town. “I don’t think my family needs it,” Selectwoman Valorie Taylor observed.
The board ultimately found, however, that joining the CUD posed no risk and bore no apparent cost. Towns can opt out as they wish, and membership does not oblige the town’s residents to buy into the CUD’s services.
“I can’t find where there’s any liability to the town,” said Selectman Larry Courcelle, who will represent Mendon on the CUD’s governing board.