Less than one percent of residents in South Burlington lack solid Wi-Fi access. That’s about six homes out of over 6,000 in the city. But for those few pockets, city officials hope that joining a communications union district will mean 100 percent coverage as the landscape of broadband changes across Vermont.

To get there, South Burlington city councilors agreed to pose the question — whether to join a communications union district to build and manage broadband infrastructure — on the November ballot for voters to decide.

Officials in Shelburne, Williston, Essex and Westford are also considering joining a communications union district. If the measures pass, the communities that opt in would join to create the district, which acts as a municipal entity. Two or more municipalities are required to form a district.

Chittenden County is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to broadband coverage in Vermont where much of the rest of the state, especially rural places, struggles to surf the web.

So, why should South Burlington join a communications union district if coverage is so widespread?

According to the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, joining a district would allow South Burlington and other communities to access available grant funds to pay for projects boosting Wi-Fi speeds — funds that are only available to communications union districts, small carriers and service providers working with districts. While almost all South Burlington is covered, only a “minority” of homes have access to high-speed fiber, which is something being incentivized for providers to “overbuild.”

Deputy city manager Andrew Bolduc explained in a July memo to the city council that since state efforts have focused broadband funding on rural areas, providers will need to “run fiber past South Burlington households that currently have access to 25/3 (megabits per second) to reach (our) few remaining underserved pockets.”

Most households in South Burlington are currently served via a network of cable, with most users experiencing Wi-Fi speeds around 25/3 Mbps, which allows for things like video streaming, video calls, email and online gaming. The goal seems to be to expand high-speed fiber with speeds of 100/100 Mbps.

Rob Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, explained to city councilors that another reason to join a district would be to ensure the city has good representation and management as state funds to build fiber kick in and the landscape of broadband infrastructure changes in Vermont.

Communications union districts can benefit towns by combining areas of need to make them more desirable to carriers, Fish said, adding that service providers tend to be more interested in serving larger populations than small, spread-out groups.

The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission was hoping to find a way to expand fiber in the area without recommending the formation of a communications union district, added Planning Program Manager Regina Mahoney, but that the district route seems to make the most sense in terms of public oversight and easier access to funding.

Joining a communications union district would not cost taxpayers at all, nor would the town be liable if the district experienced losses or insolvency. The district cannot use local option tax funds either; it must acquire bonds backed by grants or gifts.

Before South Burlington city councilors voted at their Aug. 3 meeting to pose the question to voters, Bolduc noted that, should the Legislature change how districts are funded, the city has the authority to withdraw from the district.

Communications union districts have become increasingly popular since 2015, when state legislators created the mechanism.

There are at least nine communications union districts across the state, with only Chittenden County and some spots in southeastern Vermont left out.

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