As lawmakers look for ways to get more Vermonters connected with high-speed broadband, they’re increasingly turning to community-based solutions. ECFiber, a nonprofit in the Upper Valley, has paved the way.
ECFiber broadband engineer Eric Boen sees a lot of old basements. Recently, he was working underneath an 1840s stone house in East Thetford, trying to trace a phone line that snakes around a floor joist and under a sub-floor. Boen wanted to run a fiber-optic line along the same route.
This was a messy job, since dark places like this are also favorite places for mice and other residents of the eight-legged kind.
“If I can figure out where that goes up, I’ll figure out where my hole is,” Boen said.
But before he threads the line, Boen does a quick arachnid tally.
“As you can see I got spider, spider, spider, spider, spider, spider, spider, spider. And they’re big spiders, too," Boen said. "But I think they’re just dust spiders. They’re not bad spiders. ... They’re more scared of me than I am of them.”
It doesn’t take too long before Boen works the fiber line through the hole and up through the floor to a home office. And soon, the router is hooked up and the internet turned on. Homeowner Tom Monego does a quick speed test with his laptop.
The test logs speeds of 40 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 40 Mbps upload — about 40 times faster than the speed he was getting with his previous service from Consolidated Communications.
This is ECFiber’s vision – to deliver state-of-the-art broadband, fiber-optic broadband at competitive prices, to the backroads of Vermont.
“We hope to have 1,400 miles lit, probably — hopefully by the end of 2020, maybe early 2021,” said Stan Williams, the board chairman and chief financial officer for ValleyNet, the operational arm of ECFiber. “And if the current ratio of five customers per mile holds then we’d have 7,000 customers in two years."
Williams has been part of this community internet service for more than a decade. With a background in business and telecommunications, Williams was a stay-at-home dad in 2007 when he says his family started leaning on him to help with their sluggish internet.
“We didn’t even have DSL. And they all said, 'Well, you’re a telecoms guy, why can’t you make it happen?'" Williams said, laughing. “So that was part of the push that got me to get involved with this project.”
A quick primer on fiber-optic technology: The lines are made of hair-thin strands of glass and transmit data using light, so the data move pretty much at light-speed. The signal also doesn't degrade much over distance, as happens with traditional copper wire. About 13,000 addresses in Vermont are reached with fiber internet.
ECFiber is Vermont’s first multi-town, nonprofit fiber-to-the-home provider. The name is short for the 24-town East Central Vermont Telecommunications District. Like a solid waste district, communication union districts are municipal organizations that band together to provide a public service.
ECFiber’s initial build-out was hampered by the financial collapse in 2008 that dried up potential financing. Backed by a few investors, they started with a 20-mile loop in Barnard in 2011. Then ECFiber went directly to potential customers with a crowd-financing project, with a minimum loan of $2,500 apiece.
“As long as they raised $30,000 of capital per mile, and could assure us of getting five customers on that to repay the debt, then we were able to build there,” Williams said.
Williams said ECFiber has been able to build out its network at consistently lower costs – about $30,000 per mile – than for-profit providers have estimated.
“I think frankly some of the estimates that are promulgated by incumbent telecoms is a scare tactic to prevent other entrants from coming in,” Williams said. “Because they say, ‘Oh, it'll never work in rural areas.’ And we heard that forever: 'It'll never work' ... Once we got down to it and actually put fiber on the poles and hooked up customers, it’s been $30,000 a mile consistently since we started.”
Under the state law authorizing communication districts, town tax dollars cannot be used for projects. But eventually, ECFiber was able to tap the municipal bond market and really ramp up the build-out.
A bill now making it way through the Vermont Statehouse builds on the ECFiber model, and the bill also would make about $2 million in state-backed loans available to help internet service providers get started with local networks.
Rep. Tim Briglin, chairman of the House Energy and Technology Committee, said the committee realized the state doesn’t have enough money on its own to bring broadband to underserved areas.
“To build out broadband to every last address in Vermont would cost somewhere in the $700-$800 million range. So it’s not money that we have as state to fund right now,” Briglin said. "So what our committee has done is step back and looked for places around the state that have been successful. And one of the places we’ve looked is my hometown and region at what ECFiber has done in the Upper Valley.”
But besides financing the project, there can be other practical hurdles, including the challenge of placing the line on poles that other companies own.
Irv Thomae, the chairman of the ECFiber board, has spent a lot of time in Montpelier following the legislation. He said the bill addresses the delays carriers face as they build out on the back roads.
Thomae said the utilities demand money up front, and they’re supposed to do the work within 120 days. But, he said, the companies drag their feet – and the delay hampered the ECFiber rollout in six towns.
“We were going to complete those six towns border to border. We got the clearance to hang our cable on the poles, for the last batch of poles, 16 months after we paid," Thomae said. "Not four months, but 16 months."
At Tom Monego’s home in East Thetford, the installation has gone smoothly. Monego is a freelance photographer and software consultant, so he looks forward to being able to move large files quickly.
“It just should be a little snappier, and the VPN [virtual private network] always took a little time to hook up with my last contract job,” Monego said. “So this should be a little faster.”
And the other thing Monego looks forward to with his new internet provider: He won’t have to try to reach a call center in another state and wait weeks for service if there’s a problem. ECFiber answers trouble calls from its office in Royalton, Vermont.
Correction 9:15 a.m. The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Eric Boen's name.