Vermont CUD Maple Broadband Moving Quickly To Expand Access

Vermont Community Broadband Board says it has completed the first phase of its network.

Vermont CUD Maple Broadband Moving Quickly To Expand Access
Photo of Vermont forests from Vermont Bud Barn

Vermont’s Communications Union Districts, which were the subject of a recently released ILSR report, continue to make steady inroads in delivering high-quality broadband access to long-neglected rural Vermont residents.

That includes locally owned not-for-profit municipal operation Maple Broadband, which has completed the first phase of its broadband network and is busy on an expansion.

Maple Broadband is technically an extension of the Addison County Communications Union District, a coalition of 20 different member towns working collaboratively to bring gigabit-capable fiber to residents long left unserved or underserved by regional telecom giants.

In September of 2021 Maple Broadband announced a public private partnership with Vermont-based Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom, to build and operate a district-wide fiber network. The $30 million network is, in part, propped up by ARPA funds and a $9.1 million grant from the Vermont Community Broadband Board.

Three years later and the CUD says it has completed the first phase of its network; laying 143.5 miles of fiber and passing 1,647 homes and businesses in portions of the Vermont towns of Cornwall, Orwell, Shoreham, Whiting, Salisbury, and Middlebury.

The municipality says it’s currently engaged in its phase two expansion, which will extend the network an additional 68 miles, passing 1,468 additional addresses in portions of Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Waltham, Monkton, and New Haven. Officials say their phase two deployment – expected to be completed in the next few months – has already laid 32 miles of additional fiber, and passed 574 potential service addresses.

Maple Broadband Territory Map

“Building a network is just the beginning,” Maple Broadband Chair Steve Huffaker tells VermontBiz. “It is very rewarding to be activating subscribers and providing the benefits of fiber internet to the residents of Addison County. We thank all the towns in our district that have contributed ARPA funds: Bridport, Cornwall, Ferrisburgh, Lincoln, Monkton, Panton, Ripton, Salisbury, Waltham, and Weybridge. The flexibility provided by these unrestricted funds has been very helpful to us in building the strongest business case possible.”

In target markets Maple Broadband provides locals with three tiers of possible broadband service: symmetrical 50 megabit per second access for $70 a month; symmetrical 100 Mbps service for $90 a month; and symmetrical 1 gigabit per second service for $120 a month. Service has no usage caps, contracts, or hidden fees.

That’s a significant upgrade for Vermont towns like Monkton, Vermont, where the only option for many rural locals is 25 Mbps service from Consolidated Communications, assuming they can get connected at all.

“Our 2024 budget includes $3 million in debt, although that amount may change as we assess which areas continue to lack fiber service,” said Maple Broadband Executive Director Ellie de Villiers. “This funding, combined with the ARPA funds provided by many of our member towns, will enable us to continue building later this year, and to bring service to areas that are not eligible to build with grant funding.”

The Maple Broadband website offers a map of existing and looming deployments, as well as a form for users to sign up to receive updates on potential service.

Vermont communities take matters into their own hands

Maple Broadband is the direct byproduct of a voter-approved initiative to finally address widespread broadband market failure in a state with a long history of taking telecom-related matters into its own hands.

In 2021 the Vermont legislature passed Act 71, which ensured CUDs would play a key role in expanding affordable fiber access in the green mountain state. A CUD is defined as a new municipal entity created by two or more towns with a goal of building communication infrastructure.

In Vermont, municipally-led CUDs can legally fund needed broadband expansions through debt, grants, and donations—but not taxes, though they themselves are tax-exempt nonprofits. The collaborations allow municipalities to bond together to tackle broadband network deployments that might otherwise prove too costly or logistically difficult if attempted alone.

Shoreham Vt

The results have been transformative for the state’s disconnected or poorly serviced. Locals liken the transformation to moving out of the “dark ages.

In the seven years since the state first legalized such efforts, 10 CUDs have been established or are currently under development. A significant portion of Vermont’s $150 million ARPA-based broadband package is going toward assisting CUDs in a state where 85 percent of municipalities and 90 percent of all underserved locations fall under an existing CUD’s jurisdiction.

Maple’s efforts, and Vermont’s CUD revolution more broadly, have gained federal attention for their efforts to bridge the state’s long standing digital divide.

“Reliable, affordable internet access is a necessity for work, education, health care, and nearly every aspect of everyday life,” Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said of the launch. “But for too long, investment has focused on larger, more populated areas, leaving out the small rural towns and communities that make up most of Vermont. I am glad to see Maple Broadband helping to bring affordable, high-speed internet to some of the most rural areas of Addison County.”

The efforts haven’t been without their challenges. For example the Deerfield Valley Fiber CUD, which serves 24 towns in southeastern Vermont, recently filed a financial report to the VCBB saying it needed to revamp its business plan due to “unforeseen budgetary overages.”

An “accidental omission of labor items” and higher than expected costs for pole attachments are forcing the CUD to scale back on a planned broadband buildout originally approved using $21.9 million in ARPA funding. The CUD is also facing some increased competition from private providers spurred by the CUD revolution to expand fiber access into neglected markets.

Still, Vermont communities, in many cases neglected for decades, broadly see the state’s CUD revolution as a significant step forward.

Vermont is currently ranked 31st in BroadbandNow’s state rankings of internet coverage, speed and availability. CUDs are going a long way toward improving those networks, and will likely be buoyed further by the $229 million in federal broadband subsidies soon to be doled out courtesy of the 2021 infrastructure bill.

This article was originally posted by Community Broadband Networks Initiative Institute for Local Self Reliance on June 11, 2024, and is reprinted with permission.

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