The regions expanding communications union district, NEK Community Broadband, is weighing ways in which it may leverage upcoming projects for municipal investment.
The notion was a topic of a broad conversation during the group’s monthly governing board meeting on Thursday afternoon.
NEK Community Broadband covers over 30 towns in the region with the state purpose of delivering high-speed internet to every address in the member towns through predominantly fiber-optic service.
NEK Community Broadband Vice-Chair Kristen Fountain of Albany suggested there may be an opportunity for the group to seek some of the money municipalities will be receiving from the American Rescue Plan passed last month by Congress to expand or accelerate build out plans that the broadband group will be unveiling in coming months.
“We will not be going to every town because we cannot offer every town something tangible in the next 2 years,” noted Fountain, but added this could be a rare opportunity to advance the group’s goals.
Fountain, Evan Carlson, chair of the governing board, and over 2 dozen board members discussed the possibility while recognizing that towns will have many priorities they hope to address with the funding as well as messaging challenges the broadband group faces due to its governing rules and the way it was presented to towns that signed on.
Paul Fixx of Hardwick noted that part of the sales pitch NEK Community Broadband made to towns to join was that it would not cost the municipalities anything to join and they wouldn’t face any financial liability. Fixx also noted that the CUD is prohibited from being funded by a member’s taxing authority.
“It’s a fine line both from the communications standpoint and a legal standpoint,” said Fixx.
Rep. Woody Page, of Newport, agreed. “We need to be careful because this was a big draw in the selling point.”
Carlson also said the group could be looking at significant funding from proposals unveiled by Gov. Phil Scott and the state House of Representatives to expand funding for broadband. In a budget proposal for the over $1 billion the state will be receiving through American Rescue Plan Scott outlined a $250 million investment in broadband and communications, the bulk of which would be funneled through the CUDs with $37 million coming to NEK Community Broadband if Scott’s proposal is enacted as outlined.
“We don’t want to be greedy and over ask,” said Carlson.
Fountain said that should the group approach municipalities it would need to be in the context of presenting an option for investment and expansion of plans to be able to serve more addresses and businesses more quickly.
On Friday Gov. Scott discussed his proposal during the state’s media briefing, noting he believed under his proposal it would deliver high-speed internet to “the last mile,” meaning it would provide available service all the way to residences and businesses.
“This is an incredible amount of money. We are proposing about 1/4 of a billion dollars to do so,” said Scott. “If we take advantage of this I think we can accomplish this.”
Scott was asked if he felt CUDs, many of which are recently formed, are up to the task of meeting the challenge. “I think there’s going to be a balance in the end. I believe there will be a balance between the CUDs and other organizations, for-profit organizations, so there will be some competition as well. Competition always breeds opportunity and I think that will happen in this case as well.”
The NEK Community Broadband board also heard an update from Administrator Christine Hallquist, who outlined progress on a current fiber project that is working its way through Concord and into Waterford. Hallquist said the group was able to expand its original proposal for 8 miles of fiber into 22 miles of fiber and they have a grant application in for additional funding to stretch it even further along Route 18 in Waterford.
The group is working out an arrangement with Kingdom Fiber to serve as the ISP to customers on the line that NEK Community Broadband is building and will own.
Customer rates and available speeds are still being negotiated and were a topic of discussion in executive session for the group as well.