BRATTLEBORO — After hearing about broadband projects around New England, Select Board members decided they want to learn more about what options the town might have for building its own municipal network or getting involved with a regional effort anticipated to start up soon.
"We're going to face challenges because of the nature of service that already exists in town," Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland said at Tuesday's Select Board meeting. "And we're going to face challenges because we have fewer financing options than our neighbors to the south."
For more than a year, Moreland has been looking at different projects in New England. His work had been sparked at an earlier board meeting after a resident described benefits of a municipally-owned internet service including higher speeds and lower costs while also keeping a net-neutral environment.
"Net neutrality at its core is the policy that all internet traffic should be treated equally and that internet service providers must not either privilege or intentionally slow communications traffic based on the user, the content, the website, etc.," Moreland wrote in a nine-page memo, adding that the idea became "increasingly urgent" after the Federal Communications Commission decided in December 2017 to repeal rules requiring net neutrality.
Select Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin noted that earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the FCC's decision but said states could set their own rules.
Moreland wrote that since 2015, the commission considers 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads to be the standard speeds for what can be termed broadband. Data from the Vermont Department of Public Service shows that 95.8 percent of Brattleboro's building locations have those speeds or higher and "is well ahead of the state at 73.4 percent for achieving the FCC minimum standard for broadband," according to the memo.
Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel said everyone has a different sense of what the word "broadband" means. He reported having to pay extra money to support his video production business.
How other communities built networks
Town officials looked at Leverett, Mass., which completed a municipally owned fiber optic program in 2015 and offers gigabit speed or 1,000 Mbps to every location in the community for $23.40 per month, according to the memo. A 20-year bond was secured for the $3.6 million project, a practice prohibited in Vermont.
Moreland said state officials are investigating whether the use of bonds for building town-owned communications plants should be allowed and will report their findings to legislative committees no later than Dec. 1. He expressed concerns about whether Brattleboro residents would support taking out a bond for a similar project as it would raise taxes.
Town officials researched Concord, Mass., where a public power utility established by the town in 1898 later began offering internet service to its electric customers. The fiber project cost less than $4.9 million, according to the memo, and monthly packages for residents include speeds of 35 Mbps for $49.95, 70 Mbps for $64.95, 150 Mbps for $74.95 and 300 Mbps for $89.95, with slightly higher prices for commercial use.
"Obviously a lot of work would need to be done before we can say for sure, but is it reasonable to believe that households would switch to a municipal internet service in the numbers necessary to persuade investors or sustain a new utility?" Moreland wrote. "Brattleboro should also expect significant pushback from existing private internet service providers."
Twenty-four towns in east central Vermont voted in 2008 to create the state's first communications union district known as EC Fiber, Moreland said. A board made up of representatives from the member towns oversees it.
EC Fiber has raised funds and taken out several bonds to continue expanding its service, according to the memo. Monthly packages are offered at $66.50 for 25 Mbps, $91 for 50 Mbps, $116 for 200 Mbps and $149 for 700 Mbps.
Moreland, who attended a meeting last month in Wilmington where there had been enthusiasm for forming such a district, wrote that Brattleboro could "become the hole in the doughnut just like Montpelier and Hartford are within EC Fiber. They are seated members of the CUD, but do not yet enjoy service from the network."
Over time, Moreland said, the landscape can change and the district could provide ways to improve internet service in Brattleboro. Town officials plan to stay involved in the conversation. Select Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr said not doing so would be "shortsighted."
Efforts in Chesterfield, N.H., where construction of a fiber network is underway after a bidding process, came across Moreland's radar. The town has contracted with Consolidated Communications to run fiber to every property after passing a $1.8 million bond, according to the memo.
Moreland said customers will pay standard market rates for the service plus an additional $10 a month to help pay down the 20-year bond. He did not have prices available at the meeting.
While the Chesterfield model is possible in Brattleboro, Moreland said, it is unclear how it would work here where there is a lot more competition among providers.
Burlington Telecom was described by Moreland as "the elephant in the room," as the city of Burlington built a fiber network for about $33.5 million in the early 2000s with financing through Citbank, but then competition from telecommunications caused issues. He said the Vermont Public Service Department determined Burlington Telecom violated its certificate of public good by not repaying the city's general fund within 60 days when it borrowed $17 million to stay afloat. The group was ultimately sold to a private company but the city only recovered about $7 million, according to the memo.
Board wants to investigate more
After Moreland's presentation, board member David Schoales was the most vocal about wanting to explore a municipal fiber optic system. He called communications "a basic utility."
"Fiber optics has created a technology revolution and we are not being allowed to participate," he said. "We're locked into copper cables, which are like a 2-inch pipe compared to the 15-mile-wide river that fiber represents. It's a miraculous technology that means unlimited, real-time communications, no interruptions, at a much lower cost. It enables new applications, new ways of making a living, innovation, economic development, equity of opportunity, new ways of accessing health services and educational opportunities and much more that we can't yet imagine."
Schoales called for a feasibility study to determine assets, community support and what network design would be work best for Brattleboro.
"I hope we would decide tonight to move forward with this work," he said to applause from meeting attendees.
Franz Reichsman, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee, said he believes other communities are going to move forward with similar projects.
"I think upload speeds are critical," he said. "I think if action isn't taken in a well-considered way, we're making a big mistake."
Town Manager Peter Elwell said his biggest fear is "competition from the big players." He suggested that hiring a consultant could help determine a path forward.
State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham-2-1, said technical assistance will be available for communities through the state as part of a new law aimed at expanding broadband.
Derrik Jordan of Brattleboro, who testified in Montpelier before the broadband bill was passed, said fiber is "more secure, more reliable and has a much higher bandwidth that allows faster ... speeds."
"We're losing young people; this is real in this town," he said. "But having fiber would increase the opportunities on many levels for lots of this stuff."
Board members expressed a desire to continue the conversation at upcoming meetings.
"We'll be presenting questions and a decision-making framework to help the Select Board decide how to proceed on this topic," Elwell told the Reformer in an email.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.