Broadband in rural areas

Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom (WCVT), a broadband provider that started out as a rural phone company over 100 years ago, has won another deal to operate a broadband network in a rural Vermont communications union district (CUD).

The concept of the CUD was established in the state with the goal of making high-speed fiber broadband available in unserved and underserved areas. Each CUD is a non-profit municipal entity comprised of two or more towns. A CUD can fund operations through grants, debt and donations but not taxes.

WCVT recently won a deal to participate in the construction and management of a network in western Vermont for the Maple Broadband CUD. The new deal is with NEK Broadband, a CUD comprised of 45 member towns in northeastern Vermont.

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Also involved in the NEK deal is the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), which provides tech support, NOC monitoring, network engineering and other services to rural telecom and broadband service provider members.

“NRTC will be in charge of engineering and we’ll be the operator,” explained Kurt Gruendling, WCVT vice president of marketing, in an interview with Telecompetitor.

WCVT will handle tasks such as customer service and billing for service that will be sold under the NEK name.

The NEK Project

The NEK project calls for service to be offered at speeds of up to 1 Gbps. The rules for CUDs require service to be made available to all unserved and underserved addresses in the CUD. A location apparently is considered unserved or underserved if it does not already have access to service at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, as locations without service available those speeds are the target for the NEK deployment.

About 20,000 locations in the CUD are underserved, according to a press release about the NEK Vermont CUD deal. Some of those locations are expected to have service available to them by the end of next year.

Plans call for also providing managed Wi-Fi and voice and possibly streaming video service, Gruendling said.

The partners will be seeking state and federal grant funding to help support those plans.

In a separate phone interview, Christa Shute, NEK interim executive director, said the CUD expects to get about 25% of the funding needed for the network as a grant from the state. She noted that the state is allocating $150 million in funding that it received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to the CUDs based on unserved locations and that NEK has estimated its portion of the funding available.

In addition, the CUD could win other grants and, if needed, is likely to be able to obtain funding on favorable terms through the municipal bond market.

Shute estimates that the project will take five to seven years to complete. She also noted that the CUD concept was established in 2015 but it was only in the “last couple of years” that there was a “big push to do CUDs throughout the state.”

As the U.S. looks to make broadband available nationwide, communities are using a variety of approaches to make that possible. The Vermont CUD concept is an interesting one in that the CUDs will be the network owners. And as the map below shows, CUDs comprise a large part of the state. (The NEK CUD is shown in reddish-orange in the northeastern part of the state.)

(Source: Vermont DPS)

Updated to include information from an interview with Christa Shute of NEK.

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