Broadband project deemed feasible

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WINDHAM COUNTY — A business plan for building a fiber network that will reach rural areas lacking broadband services is being developed after a study determined the project is feasible.

"The Windham Regional Commission was aware there were major internet connectivity issues in certain parts of the region," Sue Westa, senior planner at the commission said during a virtual meeting about the project last week.

In fall of 2019, the state looked for proposals for the Broadband Innovation Grant program. The commission ended up receiving funding for a feasibility study and a business plan.

Ultimately, the goal is to find a way to provide internet service to the unserved and underserved areas of the region.

"Of course the COVID-19 pandemic has really strengthened the awareness of the importance of the issues surrounding connectivity in our region and the need," Westa said. "It's now acceptable and even become the norm for most people to work from home. And the importance of virtual education and healthcare cannot be stressed enough."

In January, the commission hosted a meeting to kick off the project. Surveys were issued the following month and more than 4,200 responses came in.

Technical assistance came from ValleyNet and Rural Innovations Strategies Inc. (RISI). ValleyNet operates ECFiber, which Westa said is regarded as the model for implementing broadband in rural areas in Vermont. She noted RISI has experience in getting such projects going in the Northeast and other parts of the country.

Alex Kelly of RISI said the project stayed on schedule despite the pandemic. The hope is to have a business plan completed within the next two-and-a-half months.

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Kelly said the Vermont Department of Public Service agreed that a fiber network in the region is feasible but wants to ensure that it would become "cash-flow positive after three years."

The network will need to have the ability to be connected to about 15,000 e911 addresses, according to the study. Kelly said the focus will need to be on reaching unserved and underserved areas first because that will lead to a higher number of customers in a quicker time.

His group is advocating for connecting Wardsboro, Readsboro, Whitingham, Halifax and Marlboro before moving to the "partially cabled towns" of Windham, Stratton, Townshend, Jamaica and others.

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"There is a limit to miles per year that you can build unfortunately," Kelly said, citing ECFiber's annual limit being about 250 miles on average. "There are constraints on the staff that you need to build the network. There are constraints on waiting for the owners of the poles to do what's called make-ready work, which is preparing the pole to have another attachment on it."

Carole Monroe of ValleyNet said the monthly average revenue needed for each customer or unit would be about $100. She anticipates that a $4 million loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority and about $7 million in subordinated debt would allow for the project to be cash-flow positive in two to three years. She said the VEDA loan will require a 10 percent match.

To assist with long-term planning and securing bonds, Monroe recommended a "pre-subscription campaign" to gauge interest from potential customers. A communications union district (CUD) can collect the information.

The ideal operator for the network would be a group already involved in related work. Monroe suggested an entity with line crews or a bucket truck that can splice fiber might be appropriate.

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She expressed concern about federal relief funds tied to the coronavirus pandemic creating a lot of competition for existing resources.

"That's why I really think the state should focus on workforce development and get people trained and ready to go," she said, later adding, "There's a lot of things that are happening that weren't happening six months ago."

She said the Federal Communications Commission will be offering Rural Development Opportunity Funds for census blocks it considers to be unserved and has refined its definition to include a larger number of areas. As federal relief funds come to the state and legislators have shown a large interest in broadband, she advocated for having a project ready to go.

Steven John, vice chairman of the Deerfield Valley CUD, said 13 towns are now collaborating on an effort to bring high-speed fiber to unserved and underserved communities.

"We need to reduce the internet divide in our society and certainly in Vermont," he said, adding that his group hopes to own or at least control a network.

He encouraged other communities to join the district, which recently welcomed Brattleboro and Guilford.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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