Thirteen central Vermont towns will vote Tuesday on whether to form a communications district for fiber optic internet access.
Jeremy Hansen, Berlin Selectboard Vice Chair and Norwich University computer sciences assistant professor, pitched the idea to fellow Berlin residents at last year’s town meeting in response to concerns about the lack of high-speed internet options in Berlin. A year later, Hansen is bringing his concept for Central Vermont Internet to municipalities in the region.
On Town Meeting Day Tuesday, voters from Barre City, Barre Town, Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Marshfield, Middlesex, Montpelier, Northfield, Plainfield, Roxbury, Williamstown and Worcester will vote on the ballot measure.
Communications union districts were established in 2015 to allow towns or cities to group together to provide communications services to citizens. The district model has been used for decades by water and sewer districts across Vermont. Communications union districts are not owned by individual member towns and cannot receive taxpayer funds.
Hansen based his proposal for Central Vermont Internet on ECFiber, a 24-member communications union district based in South Royalton that provides fiber optic internet services to towns across east central Vermont. Using metrics from ECFiber, Hansen calculated that Central Vermont Internet will cost $30,000 per linear mile, and will be feasible if six people per mile pay a monthly subscription rate starting at $66 per month, with a higher rate for higher speeds. ECFiber offers a tiered subscription service, ranging from a residential “basic internet subscription” of 17 Mbps for $66 per month to a “wicked internet service” of 700 Mbps for $149.
Hansen plans to rely on municipal bonds to fund the majority of the construction.
“We will hopefully be looking for businesses as anchor institutions and people who want to see this succeed, then we can go to the bond bank and show that we’ve been responsible,” Hansen said.
Hansen hopes Central Vermont Internet can eventually provide central Vermonters with access to “gigabyte speed” internet, meaning 1,000 Mbps in upload and download speed, made possible by fiber optic technology. Cable internet is the fastest form of internet currently available to central Vermonters, and Hansen claims in best case scenario, cable internet can provide those users with 100 Mbps in download speed and 10 Mbps in upload speed. Many internet users in remote areas of central Vermont only have access to DSL, which can provide up to 10 Mbps in download speed and 3 Mbps in upload speed.
“Northfield residents I spoke with that have DSL told me that they paid for 8 Mbps, and were lucky if they got 1 Mbps,” said Hansen.
Hansen feels that providing access to “21st century internet speeds” will make central Vermont more appealing to young entrepreneurs and workers.
“One of the things that the governor has been talking about is attracting educated young professionals to Vermont to start their families and their careers,” Hansen said. “A co-worker of mine who has this beautiful house up on a hill in Northfield is having a hard time selling her house because people are asking how fast her internet speed is, and then they move on when they hear how slow internet access is.”
The Central Vermont Internet proposal follows in the wake of the FCC’s recent rollback of net neutrality provisions, which instigated concerns nationwide about private internet service providers limiting or blocking access to certain websites.
Carol Monroe of ECFiber said community networks “can keep Vermont net neutral.”
Monroe cited initial funding and access to utility poles as the major challenges facing communications union districts. Monroe said that ECFiber has experienced a significant lag between payment for the “make-ready” work on utility poles and the date when construction crews are allowed to begin installation of fiber optic cables on poles.
“It’s really tough when you’re funding your network, to have written a check out in January, and in December you’re still waiting on poles,” Monroe said.
Northfield Selectboard Chair Ken Goslant said he thinks central Vermont Internet is a “great concept,” but that there are unanswered questions about how it would be funded and operated.
“We have three internet providers in town (Northfield) providing access to our outlying areas. I’m a businessman, when I see you need 6 customers per mile at $66 each and this is self-sustaining, then why aren’t these other companies all over this already?” said Goslant.
Hansen says if the ballot initiative is approved, member towns will select representatives to the board of Central Vermont Internet by the end of April. Construction could start in 2020, though where central Vermont’s first fiber optic cables would be installed remains “a big question mark,” he said.