As the nation gets serious about making broadband available to everyone, one of the more ambitious approaches comes from Vermont, where the state has been funding a considerable portion of projects undertaken by communications union districts (CUDs) – local organizations representing at least two towns that will own the broadband infrastructure that they deploy.
One of these CUDs is NEK Broadband, which represents five counties. NEK Community Relations Manager Nedah Warstler answered some questions from Telecompetitor about the CUD’s plans and the progress made to date.
“Our mission as a community-driven organization is to ensure high-speed broadband internet service is available to the most rural and underserved communities in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont,” Warstler explained in an email. “’Ensure’ means that either we will bring service – or ensure that high-speed service is being provided – to every unserved [premises] with electric utility service.”
NEK Broadband expects to need between $165 million and $185 million to achieve that goal. To date, it has raised about $30 million and has initiated projects in several areas.
According to Warstler, NEK has $25 million in grants under contract. This would include a construction grant for nearly $16 million from the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB) that was awarded in May and later boosted by an additional $5 million.
In addition, as of this month, five Vermont towns – Groton, Hardwick, Peacham, Ryegate and Walden — have allocated a total of $328,050 in funding that they received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to NEK Broadband. The funding was matched by additional funding from NEK and the VCBB for a total of $984,150.
When we asked how NEK expects to fund the remaining $135 million to $155 million, Warstler noted that the CUD is eligible to receive $65 million in construction grant funds from the VCBB but to date has been awarded only $20.8 million of those funds. The VCBB was allocated a portion of the $1.05 billion that went to the state through the ARPA Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.
Warstler also noted that the state of Vermont will receive at least $100 million in funding through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program – a program designed to cover some of the costs of broadband deployments to unserved areas. And based on an established formula, NEK could receive about 31% of Vermont BEAD funding.
NEK also will be seeking funds through the USDA ReConnect program and “will continue to seek out and apply for additional grant funding as opportunities become available,” Warstler told us. “The balance of the funds will be raised from local loans and municipal revenue bonds.”
The CUD program has been a nice opportunity for local Vermont providers like Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (WCVT), which has won deals to operate networks for at least two CUDs, including NEK and Maple Broadband.