Connecting Bennington County: Southern Vermont CUD, elected officials celebrate near-completion of fiberoptic buildout
PERU – “They said it couldn’t be done. They didn’t know Southwestern Vermont.”
That's how U.S. Sen. Peter Welch summed up the results being celebrated Tuesday at Bromley Mountain by the Southern Vermont Communications Union District and Consolidated Communications Inc.
The universal high-speed internet access project, now in its second year, has reached about 99 percent of customers across the county as it reaches completion of its second phase. The third phase, set for next year, will bring fiberoptic cable to 16 of the region’s hardest-to-reach homes.
Welch, Southern Vermont CUD Executive Director Eric Hatch, and Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Matt Harrington were among officials speaking at the event, at Bromley Mountain Ski Area’s Wild Board Tavern. They in turn hailed the efforts of the Southern Vermont CUD’s volunteer board, Consolidated workers, and federal, state and local lawmakers who supported the funding for the project.
“Today's milestone is an important one relative to the lasting social and economic impact it will have for our region, much like rural electrification,” Hatch said. “Universal rural broadband will allow Bennington County and the CUD member towns to not only compete with cities in the US but across the globe. Our area will have its natural beauty and caring and talented community and also the technology to provide the services and infrastructure for today and tomorrow's digital age environments.”
Welch and others spoke not only of the economic benefits of extending “future-proof” high speed infrastructure across the county, but the ways in which it levels the playing field for a rural area, and proves that at the local level, people can come together to solve problems.
Jeff Austin, Consolidated's senior director of fiber build strategy, said the project is connecting 2,400 previously unserved homes and stringing 635 miles of fiber optic cable in 14 towns. He predicted that service will result in economic and educational benefits for the region.
“This all-fiber network will allow these 14 towns to grow and thrive in ways you may not have imagined.” he said. “Generations of residents can enjoy the beauty of this area without having to miss out on the myriad of opportunities that come with the best internet provision.”
Hatch said the Southern Vermont CUD's partnership with Consolidated “added rocket fuel to our mission.”
“We would not have a three-year, three-phase project without [Consolidated]. Instead, we would be talking about years before taking even the first steps in a fiber rollout,” Hatch said. The company made things possible with an investment worth $19 million, as well as its own resources, union labor, and teamwork.
“They share the same goals and our mission and we are grateful for that support,” Hatch said.
The rollout is already having a positive impact on business, Harrington said. In 2022, he said, 41 percent of respondents to the chamber’s member survey cited access to high-speed internet as a problem holding them back. This year, just 18 percent of respondents cited internet access as an issue, he said.
“We're not so good at cooperation in D.C.; conflict seems to be the order of the day,” Welch said. “But what you're proving is cooperation and collaboration works. … So it's just I think a testament to this wonderful ethic that we still have – everyone focusing on getting the job done for the people in our community, and finding a way where each of us can make a constructive contribution to making that happen.”
Sheila Kearns, one of Sandgate’s representatives to the Southwestern Vermont Communications Union District, had to attend some of the board’s remote meetings by phone. The copper wire legacy telecom infrastructure in Sandgate wouldn’t always support Kearns taking part via online video, especially in bad weather.
“It was especially challenging for a lot of neighbors during COVID, having to get their children online,” Kearns said Friday at a celebration. “We actually had one family that would come into Town Hall because there was a hotspot there.”
A fiberoptic line was deployed on Kearns’ road last week, she said, and she’s expecting a service line to her home will be installed soon.
“There are a number of small home-based businesses there that struggle every day because they run their services in online platforms,” Kearns said. “Even basics of sending a file or doing email, that kind of thing … aging copper is very unreliable.”
Welch said he made the case in Congress that extending high-speed broadband was like the drive to extend electrical service to every home in the U.S. nearly 100 years ago.
“That wasn't an economic decision. There was a social decision. That was the confidence of a country and the respect … for all who lived within that country, whether they were in heavily populated urban areas or remote, rural areas,” Welch said. “There was an understanding that there's a democratic value in making certain things all of us need in red states and blue states, rural America and urban America, are available, because that is what is the glue that is going to keep us together and help us resolve our problems.”
“So the excitement for me about having broadband extended to all of our rural areas, and there's a lot of rural areas in Vermont, is that it's a political statement of confidence and solidarity in connection,” he said.
“We talk a lot about digital equity, but this is an equity issue that goes beyond that,” said Rob Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board. “This is about access to health care, access to education, but it's also about building communities. It’s about resiliency.”
Reach Greg Sukiennik at email@example.com or at 802-447-7567, ext. 119.
Read the story from the Bennington Banner at https://www.benningtonbanner.com/business/connecting-bennington-county-southern-vermont-cud-elected-officials-celebrate-near-completion-of-fiberoptic-buildout/article_159dea32-362d-11ee-971e-af7e87679b7a.html