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ECFiber Adds 1,000th Customer; Continues to Expand in Vermont

In April, ECFiber connected it 1,000th customer in Thetford Hill. Users at the First Congregational Church, described as the oldest meeting house in the state, have nothing but kudos for ECFiber and their new high-speed symmetrical Internet access. From the press release [PDF]:

“The service has been great so far,” said David Hooke, Chair of the Board of Trustees, “and we really appreciate that ECFiber is a community owned organization committed to bringing state of the art connectivity to rural east central Vermont. This will be a boon for the whole region.”

To celebrate the milestone, ECFiber Chairman Irv Thomae presented a special certificate to the Church.

This is just the latest accomplishment as ECFiber expands across Vermont. The consortium of 24 towns continues to obtain financing one expansion at a time. According to another press release [PDF], the community owned network just added an expansion to encompass the towns of Chelsea and Tunbridge. This will allow 80 more rural household to subscribe; more will soon be on the way:

“This is the first of several expansions we’ll be opening this summer,” said Irv Thomae, Chairman of ECFiber and Governing Board delegate from Norwich. “We’re pleased that more residents in this area are now able to enjoy the benefits of locally grown, full time, state-of-the-art real broadband.”

Read our previous coverage of EC Fiber here.

UPDATE: Today, ECFiber announced that it is now offering free bandwidth upgrades to local schools, public institutions, and libraries. The announcement, another example of a publicly owned network going the extra mile to improve the quality of life in the community, is published in VermontBiz. From the announcement:

“Thanks to our high speed infrastructure and state-funded dark fiber and grants that have helped interconnect many of our hubs, ECFiber has excess bandwidth (particularly during daytime hours) and we are pleased to be able to offer it to all these institutions, many of which operate under tight budget constraints,” said Irv Thomae, Chairman of ECFiber and Governing Board delegate from Norwich. “Although 400 Mbps is currently the fastest speed we offer, we hope to be able to continue to provide these institutions the fastest speed we offer in the future.  We hope to provide 1 Gigabit per second speeds within one year.” 

Grants are from the Vermont Department of Public Services Connectivity Initiative and will help to connect even more schools and libraries.

ECFiber Seeks New Business Model Designation

ECFiber hopes to transform its business model in order to attract investors, reported Valley News in February. The organization is now an "inter-local contract," an entity somewhat unique to Vermont, but seeks to change to a "telecommunications union district." Similar to a municipal utility district, the telecommunications union district is created by two or more municipalities. The new business model would not change ECFiber's governance or require financial support from local towns but officials believe it would attract more outside investors.

Last year, ECFiber announced it would expand in 2015, seeking large scale funding to help speed up deployment. Since 2008, the organization has raised over $6 million for deployment from individual investors and now serves more than 1,000 subscribers. Unfortunately, this method financing slows expansion. The results are bad for ECFiber and bad for local consumers:

“The worst thing (about ECFiber’s delay) is a lot of the people who wanted to have it weren’t able to get it right away,” said [ECFiber Treasurer John] Roy.

At this point, FairPoint, Northern New England’s provider of land-line service, is able to reach more rural areas than ECFiber with its high-speed Internet service. But, FairPoint’s speeds of up to 30 megabits per second are slower than the 400 megabits per second ECFiber’s cables can provide, said Roy.

“If we’re going to get this job done before the end of this decade, we need to step up the rate,” said [Irv] Thomae [ECFiber's Governing Board Chariman].

It would take another 17 - 18 years to deploy 1,600 miles of fiber, the ECFiber goal. If the organization can raised $40 million from larger investors, that period can be reduced to 3 - 5 years, estimated Roy.

In order to achieve the business model change, ECFiber seeks approval from the State Legislature, which will create a union district via H 353 [PDF]. Local communities served by ECFiber must also approve the measure by ballot at their Town Meetings. Thetford approved the measure in February and ECFiber officials expected other communities to follow with no surprises.

Local communities may have no problem taking care of business, but the same cannot be said for state leaders. H 353 and two others are stalled in the State Legislature's Commerce and Economic Development Committee, reports VTDigger. All three bills are designed to help advance rural broadband development but have been put on the back burner while the committee deals with other matters.

Rep. Jim Masland from Theford introduced H 353. He told Valley News that he was optimistic about passage and that "it shouldn't be controversial." Hopefully, the committee can tend to the bill quickly this session so ECFiber can continue to do its good work. Delay only benefits Fairpoint and harms consumers who want better services from a local, accountable, publicly minded network provider.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 23

We continue to see reverberations from President Obama's speaking out in favor of municipal networks. The presidential nod sparked state lawmakers to propose bills, news organizations to write editorials, and to give communities a better sense of how they can take action locally.

As Claire Cain Miller with the New York Times wrote in her article for “The Upshot”:

“The goal is not to replace the big companies with small, locally run Internet providers. It is to give people more than one or two options for buying Internet – and spur everyone, including the incumbents, to offer more competitive service and pricing.”

Jeff Ward-Bailey reported on Obama’s interest in tech issues in the State of the Union, specifically the laws limiting local deployment of networks.

“Obama has said that he wants to end these laws, and the White House’s new broadband plan includes a program, BroadbandUSA, that will encourage communities to deploy their own high-speed networks. BroadbandUSA will offer guidance on planning, financing, and building municipal broadband networks, and even includes funding for “in-person technical assistance to communities.”

The always-worth-reading Harold Feld explained the significance of President Obama's short mention of Internet access in his address:

“Which brings me to the last point. Yes, the President is clearly signalling that Dems need to see investment in broadband infrastructure (including by local governments) and protecting the open Internet not as isolated issues or peripheral techie issues, but as part of a comprehensive plan to ensure that the United States has a robust 21st infrastructure necessary to support a prosperous nation with opportunity for all. At the same time, Republicans should stop thinking of this as “regulation of the Internet” and think of it in the same way we think of highway fund investment and maintaining public roads. This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, and it didn’t use to be.”

Reactions from cities and news organizations around the country showed that people support the right to build networks for job creation, business development, education, and healthcare. 

Alex Keefe and Lynne Mccrea with Vermont Public Radio talked to Irv Thomas with central Vermont’s ECFiber for reactions to the president’s message. More than 30 percent of Vermonters did not have access to high download speeds in 2013 – that’s one of the highest percentages of any state in the nation. 

Community Broadband Efforts

Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey with the Open Technology Institute wrote about the significance of Obama’s announcement for other small cities that want to restore local authority to build networks: 

“The digital divide becomes even more pronounced when you compare access in urban and rural parts of America, or consider the fact that four out of five Americans who aren’t online live below the poverty line. A big part of the problem is competition: Most Americans live in areas where only a single provider offers truly high-speed connectivity (more than 25 megabits per second), and it often comes with a steep price tag.”  

Some states are wasting no time moving forward with their community Internet networks. Kudos to Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey for his proposal. The Hill’s Mario Trujillo reports:

“Booker's legislation — the Community Broadband Act — would block any state "statute, regulation, or other legal requirement" that restricts cities from providing their own Internet network. His legislation to tweak the Telecommunications Act of 1996 will be introduced Thursday.”

Booker's office framed the issue as one that could help rural and low-income communities. At least 19 states around the country have laws on the books setting limits on the creation or expansion of municipal broadband networks. 

The state with some of the slowest Internet in the nation may have hope yet for high speed Internet access thanks to a huge push by state lawmakers. Maine lawmakers on both sides of the isle submitted a whopping 35 bills that could help the state make some serious moves up the list. Darren Fishell with Bangor Daily News covered the story.

“I think most people understand that in this day and age for us to be competitive, that’s one of the necessary tools,” [Rep. Norman] Higgins (a Republican) said, noting he’s found bipartisan support on the issue. “The question, I think becomes: How do we do it? And who does it?”

One of the key proposals is a change in definitions. Whit Richardson with The Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel writes that Maine’s broadband service authority is raising the standard of broadband from 1.5 Mbps to download and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps. Currently just 20 percent of households there have access to those speeds. The new standard would mean about 80 percent of the state’s communities (up from just 5 percent) would be eligible for ConnectME funding and it be the most aggressive state in terms of requiring fast upload speeds - a boon to small businesses and people who work remotely.

But Broadband DSL Reports’ Karl Bode reports that the state may find they want to raise that bar even higher in coming months. He reports on Netflix CEO’s push for making 25 Mbps download the “new baseline.”

Another Minnesota broadband effort is nearing its financial goals. The Belle Plaine Herald report that RS Fiber’s 10 member cities re-committed to the fiber project this week. Backers are seeking another level of commitment before moving ahead with the sale of bonds in March. The first phase of building for the project is expected to begin in 2016.

Cleveland’s OneCommunity “Big Gig Challenge Grant” is going toward helping create a fiber network to connect several businesses, non-profits and the Cleveland Clinic. The West 25th Corridor project is earmarked to be municipally-led, community-wide fiber. 

“The impact of introducing fiber to this burgeoning district cannot be overstated,” according to OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick. “Hospitals, industry and businesses of all sizes, regardless of their scope will benefit from the network. We are proud to be part of this major leap into the future as outlined by the West 25th Street Corridor Initiative.”

In Utah, UTOPIA is reaching a settlement that gives hope to the struggling network. Antone Clark with the Standard Examiner reported the good news for network, which had been running at a loss for several years. 

“Even as we speak, our revenue picture is frankly outstanding,” Paul Isaac, acting director of UTOPIA, told the Standard-Examiner recently when pressed on the operational status of the network as it heads into the 2015 year.”

Just “down the road” in San Francisco, you can access high speed Internet from all city parks, and many businesses.  Josh Harkinson with Motherboard reported on how the telecom industry has developed such a successful obstacle course for communities: 

“Like many cities, San Francisco already has a robust fiber network in place to serve government offices.  [Ron Vinson, the city's chief marketing officer] believes that the $1.7 million that the city has spent to outfit its network with public wifi (not including a $600,000 grant from Google) is totally worth it. "There's absolutely no downside being able to provide access to the internet, whether you are parking your car or waiting for a MUNI bus," he says. "It's one of those fundamental things. We fill potholes, we clean the streets, and yes, now we provide wifi. And our citizens expect that."

Seattleites hopes for a city-owned network were rekindled this week! KING5 News reported on a new group forming that will push for affordable Internet access across the city. If the group is successful, Seattle would be the largest city in the United States with a municipal network.

Missouri Considers Revoking Local Authority

Despite the positive news from the White House, another state— Missouri— will consider a bill that creates barriers for community broadband. Rep. Rocky Miller introduced the bill, Sean Buckley with Fierce Telecom.

"Miller's bill includes a provision that would require a town or city to make a majority vote to offer a "competitive service." If residents voted to build a community network, the municipality would not be able to use the revenue from other services like water and sewer to pay for the buildout of the network and services, which would create a challenge in being able to pay for the initial construction costs to extend services to homes and businesses."

Kansas City, Missouri, is concerned how the proposed legislation would stifle the torrent of tech startups and economic development activities that are tied to faster speeds. 

"[Communications litigation expert Robert] Cooper said that state laws that restrict municipal broadband deployment are "antithetical to those FCC mandates because they enshrine barriers to investment by local governments." There is "ample" evidence that advanced broadband capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion."

ECFiber and ValleyNet Seek Managing Director

Recently, we reported that ECFiber in Vermont plans to expand in the near future. To fund that expansion, the consortium will seek out new, larger scale funding to meet the increased demand. ValleyNet, Inc., the company that manages the FTTH network for ECFiber is now searching for a Managing Director. The full posting is listed below and can be viewed at the NTCA Rural Broadband Association Job Center.

In keeping with the community goals of the network, we found value in this particular specification:

Community Foundation: In view of the above, the MD must fully appreciate and embrace the concept of a community-owned public utility and be able to relate successfully to:  the individual towns; their governing bodies (“Select Boards”); the ECFiber Governing Board and its members; and with the citizens themselves.  Although ECFiber is required by law and constitution to be entirely self-supporting and to “pay its own way”, it is not a purely “profit-maximizing” institution.  Balancing the needs of the community with the commercial discipline required to fund all its activities without resorting to taxpayer funding sources is a basic requirement of the MD’s position. 

ECFiber Continues to Grow; Plans to Expand in 2015

In early December, the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network (ECFiber) announced that it is once again expanding, bringing the network to 200 miles by the end of 2014. According to the press release, the network will reach into an additional 8 towns in 2015, in part due to dark fiber deployed in cooperation with the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

From the press release:

 “We’re pleased that residents of these areas are now able to enjoy the benefits of locally grown, full time, state-of-the-art real broadband,” said Irv Thomae, Chairman of ECFiber and Governing Board delegate from Norwich.

Over 400 households have invested in the network thus far, but Thomae goes on to note that the consortium will pursue larger scale funding in 2015 in order to obtain the necessary funds to expand at a quicker pace. Currently, local investors fund the network by purchasing tax-exempt promissory notes.

Subscribership has continued to climb. Last spring, we reported on the 600th sign-up but now ECFiber is at nearly 1,000 customers. There are currently 24 member towns in the consortium. 

Burlington Sells Burlington Telecom, Continues to Operate the Network

In November, Burlington's City Council approved the much anticipated settlement with Citibank. Burlington Telecom, a nearly citywide gigabit FTTH network owned by the city, was run into the ground by a previous mayor. That Mayor's Administration hid major cost overruns from the public for years, resulting in a challenging situation for the community. In the the world of municipal broadband, this is a significant anomaly.

The City found itself owing CitiBank some $33 million with no clear path on how to pay it. After years of arguing in court, the situation is largely resolved. Early in 2014, Citibank and Burlington reached a settlement [PDF] in which the the city would pay $10.5 million and a share of BT's future value in exchange for Citibank to drop its $33 million lawsuit. The obligation will include funds contributed by the city's codefendant, McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan P.C. law firm.

BT revenues, net cash flow, and the city's insurance carrier will contribute to the city's obligation, but the lion's share will be paid for with bridge financing from a local source. Trey Pecor, a Burlington business owner, has secured funding and created Blue Water LLC. The city will transfer ownership of the network to Blue Water in exchange for $6 million and will continue to lease the network from Blue Water at about $558,500 per year for a maximum period of five years. The goal is to find a partner to purchase the network. At that time, Blue Water and the city will divide any proceeds from the sale. 

As part of the agreement, the City Council and the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) needed to approve the terms. The PSB is the state entity tasked with regulating utility rates and related financial matters in Vermont. On November 3rd, the PSB approved the transaction unanimously [PDF of the Order].

A Vermont Digger article reported that several organizations, including the Center for Media and Democracy, the Regional Educational Television Network and Vermont Community Access Media, requested a six month public engagement process before the deal be approved. The groups, known as Burlington Access Management Organizations (BAMOs) were concerned that a distant corporate owner that may purchase network, will not be community-minded in its decisions. The BAMOs also requested that three to five people with experience in telecom, alternative corporate structures, and public engagement, be added to the Advisory Board. From the VTDigger article:

The Public Service Board did not agree to the request. The board said it would be premature to impose conditions on a prospective sale, and that any future owner will be expected to comply with the same public access obligations the city must meet now.

“While the conditions requested by BAMOs may provide a useful mechanism to explore issues in connection with a prospective future sale of BT’s Assets, the Board declines to impose such conditions,” the PSB wrote.

Unfortunately, the PSB missed the fundamental point - the required public access obligations are quite small. Burlington Telecom, like most municipal fiber networks, went above and beyond the bare minimum required by law. The only way to ensure Burlington continues providing great customer service, high quality connections, and additional services to the community is by making it sure it is accountable to the community, not distant shareholders.

We cannot help but be disappointed at the continued pain caused by the failure of Mayor Kiss's administration to be honest with the people of Burlington - a reminder of how important transparency is for local governments.

We strongly support the efforts of local groups to ensure that when the network is next sold, it is to a locally rooted entity that will ensure the high level of service BT has delivered will continue.

The PSB did grant the city's requested reprieve from a condition that the network connect every address in Burlington. There are still approximately 3,250 addresses that BT does not reach, often in areas with underground utilities or condos where the owner is not cooperative. In order to make the system more enticing to potential buyers, the PSB removed the obligation from the utility's certificate of public good.

On November 17th, the City Council approved the settlement along with bridge financing documents, which will allow the process to move forward. The Council also decided to expand the BTAB and approved operating guidelines. WPTZ reported that there were local residents attending the council meeting who spoke out against the sale, but the Council voted to approve unanimously. From WPTZ:

"Given the circumstances that we were faced with over the past five years, this settlement is the best solution, the best possible outcome from our saga with Burlington Telecom," said Karen Paul, a Burlington city council member.

Local coverage on the City Council settlemet approval from WPTZ:

Video: 
See video

Chris Visits Burlington to Talk About Local Telecom Challenges

Burlington Telecom customers love their local muni. Throughout the community's political, legal, and financial challenges, residents and businesses have rallied behind the ability to control their access locally. As part of their efforts to educate the community, Code for BTV and Keep BT Local brought Chris to town to discuss community ownership. The video of his presentation is now available online at Burlington's Town Meeting Television.

Chris discussed a variety of community ownership and said of Burlington:

"When it comes down to getting community support to raising capital and understanding the value of a cooperative, Burlington's about the best place in the country to be trying to do that."

Keep BT Local began officially organizing in late 2012. Their goal is to transform the municipal network into a cooperative structure on order to protect local interest in the service. The gigabit network has won awards, partnered with local nonprofits to improve digital inclusion, and offered local services such as computer repair, setting it apart from the distant corporate providers with no interest in local communities.

No wonder Burlingtonians want to keep their network! This is an informative conversation that touches on a variety of topics including how to fire up potential cooperative members, strategies to entice community anchors, and promoting the unique characteristics of a local network.

The video runs about one hour and twenty minutes.

 

Community-Owned Dark Fiber Expands in Vermont

Last week, we criticized the draft version of the Vermont Telecommunications Plan for its conflicting goals, misplaced priorities, and all-around lack of vision. Fortunately for Vermonters, there are good things happening in the state as well: the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) and EC Fiber are partnering on a new 51 mile run of dark fiber that will bring new connection options to over 1,000 businesses and residences. 

VTA will be building the central fiber lien, which runs North-South along the I-91/I-89 corridor, and will be open to any carrier. EC Fiber, a nonprofit, community-owned open access network, will be an anchor tenant on the new fiber optic line, and will contribute $200,000 to project costs and be responsible for making last mile connections to the premises of homes and businesses that purchase them. 

The new fiber line will connect designated “Broadband Business Improvement Districts” in the towns of Braintree, Pomfret, Brookfield, North Randolph, and Sharon, making speeds of up to 400 mbps symmetrical available along the way. The project is expected to be completed in the first half of 2015, along with dark fiber projects in Reading, Stockbridge, Rochester and Hancock.   

These projects show that at least some in Vermont are aware of the need for fiber, and why the focus on new investments in last generation technologies embodied in the draft Vermont Telecommunications Plan are so misguided. 

Vermont Draft Telecom Plan Fails to Deliver on Many Fronts

Last week, the Vermont Department of Public Service began a series of public hearings on the public comment draft of its State Telecommunications Plan. The plan is intended to asses the current state of the telecom landscape in Vermont, map out goals and benchmarks for the next 10 years, and provide recommendations for how to achieve them. The plan sets a target of 100 megabit per second symmetrical connections for every home and business in the state by 2024.

Oddly enough, achieving that even today would put them behind many metropolitan areas across the United States. The technology needed to deliver 100 Mbps connections is essentially the same that would be used to deliver 1 Gbps, begging the question why such a limited goal?

The 100/100 mbps symmetrical target is for 10 years into the future, but in the nearer term the plan calls for universal 4/1 Mbps coverage, raised to 10/1 Mbps coverage by 2020. While it may at first glance seem reasonable to set gradually rising targets, these long and short term goals actually have the potential to conflict with each other.

As pointed out by Vermont Public Radio, the 100/100 Mbps standard would likely require universal FTTH, or at least fiber to the node combined with other technological advances and investments. Meeting this goal would require a huge investment in next generation fiber optic infrastructure, yet the Telecommunications Plan calls for funding priorities to be focused on achieving universal 4/1 mbps coverage for the next 6 years. This lower standard will likely be met with a combination of last generation technologies like copper wire DSL and wireless that are incapable of meeting the 100/100 standard.

Continuing to build out older systems while deferring investments in fiber, which is adaptable to meet just about any future need, seems illogical. It’s a bit like saying you’re going to put all your expendable income for the next six years into repairing your VCR and buying tapes, while promising you’ll buy a DVD player immediately after. 

While the goal of first guaranteeing all Vermonters some basic level of coverage is admirable, Vermont can do better by setting higher goals for itself. However, a real plan would require Vermont to actually invest in better connections rather than continuing to award grants to pokey incumbent providers like Comcast and FairPoint.

EC Fiber Logo

Leslie Nulty, a former Project Coordinator with the locally-owned, open access EC Fiber Network in the eastern part of state, put it best in her scathing criticism of the plan:

The long-range vision is admirable, but unfortunately the plan has no guidance at all as to how to reach it. It’s near-term guidelines, on the other hand, assure that current public policy will hinder, if not completely block, achievement of the long-term “Vision.”

Another concerning piece of the Plan is its decidedly skeptical attitude toward public networks, or anything that deviates from the standard playbook of offering grants to incumbent provider to entice them to build. From page vii of the Telecommunications Plan:

7. Vermont policy makers should carefully consider the potential negative outcomes of state and municipalities directly competing with private firms in the provision of telecommunications services, especially in areas where consumers are adequately served. Vermont should refrain from policies, including financial incentives, that have the net effect of diminishing competitive choice in the marketplace.

There is no evidence that municipal networks diminish competititon while there is plenty of evidence that municipal networks have resulted in more competition and increased investment from incumbent providers. The idea that more competition results in less competition is worthy of an explanation from George Orwell. 

“Competitive choice” is another goal that sounds good, but in this context it is used primarily to discourage investment in local networks that allow communities to determine and meet their own needs. To communities that have limited or no broadband access, this in effect announces that the state has little interest in helping them build their own networks, they should just sit tight until they get an already obsolete 4/1 mbps connection from a private provider, subsidized by the state, sometime around 2017 or 2018. 

On the whole, this Telecommunications Plan offers minimalist requirements for “basic” broadband that are already obsolete, and completely ignores other important measures of quality connectivity, such as latency. It offers essentially no new funding to back up its promises, with only vague mentions of tapping “public and private sources” while using existing revenue streams to invest in meeting outdated standards through private providers. The list of recommendations mostly read like an endorsement of the status quo, which stands at odds with the headline grabbing pronouncements of long-term goals. In short, it seems like a plan designed to have the most public relations impact with the minimal expense of political, financial, or even intellectual capital. 

For a more detailed breakdown of the Vermont Telecommunications Plan’s failings from someone more versed in the local landscape, read the full testimony given by Leslie Nulty [pdf] at a public hearing on the issue. She touches on all the issues mentioned above and a variety of others, from the plan’s lack of support for open access network models to new funding mechanisms preferable to grants to incumbents, such as revolving loan funds to finance network buildouts. 

Chris Mitchell In Burlington, Vermont on September 19th

Members of the Burlington community are hosting a luncheon on Friday, September 19th, to discuss ways to help keep BT local. Chris, as one of the leading experts on municipal broadband, will be leading the discussion. We have followed BurlingtonTelecom's challenges and victories since 2008.

The event is titled "How Do We Keep Burlington Telecom Local?" and will be at the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy in Burlington. From the announcement:

Many Burlington residents and activists are concerned about the City of Burlington’s plans to sell Burlington Telecom to a private entity by 2017. While the City is committed to BT as a driver for economic and community development, it currently has no specific plans to retain a meaningful ownership stake in the new entity. 

The event is part of a series of community talks aimed at maintaining public input as the City prepares to move forward. 

A free discussion will begin at 11 a.m.; it will be followed by lunch for $15. You can now register online. For those who want to learn more about the network and keep up on the latest developments, CCTV of Vermont has put together a resource page detailing upcoming steps with news coverage, video, and court documents.