Brandon forms district to pursue better broadband

BRANDON — Brandon has become the first town in Rutland County to form a communications district in an effort to improve its internet service.
Thanks to an initiative from the Department of Public Service, the Rutland Regional Planning Commission has been awarded a Broadband Innovation Grant to support the improvement of stronger, more reliable broadband internet service. The grant will be used to fund a feasibility study that will assess the most cost-effective way to bring better fiber optic internet service to the area.
Brandon is among 15 Rutland County towns that have been identified as being underserved by internet service. They include Benson, Castleton, Chittenden, Clarendon, Fair Haven, Hubbardton, Mendon, Pittsford, Poultney, Proctor, Rutland Town, Sudbury, West Haven, and West Rutland.
But, according to Brandon Economic Development Officer Bill Moore, in order to access the grant money and initiate the feasibility study the town had to create a Communication Union District (CUD). At the July 13 selectboard meeting, the board unanimously approved the creation of the Otter Creek Communication Union District. Now, Brandon needs one more town to join the district in order to make it official and access the grant funds. The towns of Pittsford, Sudbury and Goshen are each considering joining.
“We’re waiting for a dance partner,” Moore said in an interview late last month, “and we’re hoping that everybody decides to join because it makes sense to do this.”
As reported in the Independent, several towns in Addison County are also looking to form or join a separate CUD.
In a recent email to other towns in the Rutland region, Amanda O’Connor of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission applauded the town of Brandon for taking the first step toward better connectivity. 
“The Town of Brandon Select Board has already taken the initiative of voting to establish their participation in a CUD, which they have named the Otter Creek Communications Union District,” she wrote. “By having this vote now, they were able to bypass a town-wide vote on Town Meeting Day and brings the new Otter Creek Communications Union District one step closer to being in queue for future funding that’s becoming available from both federal and state funds, as well as non-profit granting starting this month.”
According to Rob Fish, Rural Broadband Technical Assistance Specialist with the 
Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS), the $750,000 Broadband Innovation Grant allots $30,000 to each district to perform a feasibility study, and another $30,000 to create a business plan based on the results of the study. All told, Fish said there are currently nine CUDs already established across Vermont. Several towns in Addison County, including Leicester and Salisbury, are part of another CUD.
“The business plan is designed to make the case to potential funders,” Fish said.
Those funders could include local banks, as well as the Vermont Economic Development Association, which has up to $12 million to loan, Fish said. There are also grants available that could help CUDs fund the broadband improvements.
Clay Purvis, Director of the DPS Telecommunication and Connectivity Division, added that additional funding could be available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Vermont Community Foundation, and the Northern Border Commission, a new Federal-state partnership aimed at improving economic and community development within the most distressed counties of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.
Moore said while improving broadband service in underserved areas of Vermont has been a necessity for years, the COVID-19 pandemic upped the ante. With students learning remotely and more Vermonters working remotely, the need for reliable internet service is needed now more than ever, not to mention the economic development appeal.
“Broadband has been an ongoing discussion in Brandon for a while,” he said. “From an economic development standpoint, better access to robust broadband will spur economic development. It’s a better way to do business. COVID pushed that to be glaringly obvious. Telecommunication is something we have to do.”
Moore said the feasibility study should take 3-6 months, but he’s hoping it’s closer to three because additional federal pandemic relief funds must be used by Dec. 1.
“This will make Brandon a more attractive place to live and do business,” Moore said of the broadband expansion. “It’s a quality of life issue. Broadband has moved out of luxury to a utility, especially if you’re looking at kids doing some portion of their education remotely.”
As the frontrunner in Rutland County, Brandon must now see what the contiguous towns of Sudbury, Goshen and Pittsford will do.
“This is getting exciting,” he said. “We want to make sure we don’t miss the boat.” 

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