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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. 

ECFiber Welcomes 600th Subscriber

The East Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (ECFiber) recently connected its 600th customer. The network continues to connect to additional homes and businesses, recently reaching Royalton. According to the Valley News, the network will extend to over 200 miles by the end of 2014, passing more than 2,000 homes and businesses.

The story notes that the Vermont Telecom Authority's Orange County Fiber Connector, a dark fiber project running through Orange and Windsor Counties, facilitated the expansion. From the article:

“In addition to offering us the possibility to connect more than 500 homes and businesses along the route, the (Orange County connector) will enable the interconnection of our remote hubs, allowing us to purchase more bandwidth and offer higher throughput to our subscribers,” said Stan Williams, chief financial officer and interim chief executive officer of ValleyNet, the Vermont nonprofit charged with operating ECFiber.

ECFiber sells tax-exempt promissory notes to local investors to fund the network. The coalition of communities that participate in the network now number 24. The Valley News also reports that the new CEO for ValleyNet will be Tom Lyons, formerly of Sovernet. Lyons replaces Tim Nulty, who recently retired.

Leslie Nulty, one of the network's champions, talked with Chris in episode 9 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. She described the ECFiber model and shared the history of the network.

Burlington's Civic Cloud Collaborative Wins Knight Foundation Award

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded a Knight Prototype Fund grant to the Civic Cloud Collaborative of Burlington, Vermont.

The Civic Cloud Collaborative is a group of eight organizations using Burlington's gigabit network to create civic and public spaces. The group describes the Civic Cloud project on their website:

The Civic Cloud will be available for the community to use as a platform for public, non-commercial Internet applications and digital creative works. Several applications will be deployed during an initial prototyping phase of the Civic Cloud. High-definition live streaming will be provided for community media outlets to webcast live public meetings and cultural events. WordPress websites will be hosted for several Vermont non-profits including rescue squads, food shelves, job banks and historical societies. A collection of volunteer-developed applications and a state-of-the-art website deployed to the Civic Cloud will help Big Heavy World preserve and promote Vermont-made music. Lakecraft, an educational, multi-user game aimed at youth and adults that gamifies the Lake Champlain Basin, will also be one of the first applications to run on the Civic Cloud.

Vermont Public Radio also reported on the award. From the article:

“We’re interested in it being a non-commercial space on the Internet,” said Bradley Holt, a Burlington-based developer who heads CodeForBTV, the local chapter of Code For America, an organization for public service software developers.

The cloud service, Holt said, will provide hosting capacity for local community organizations seeking to use the Internet to advance the public interest.

For more, check out the press release from Code for BTV, one of the collaborative members.

Burlington's Next Step: Become a Gigabit Community

Burlington has seen ups and downs over the past few years but a new chapter is about to begin. The non-profit U.S. Ignite and the City are partnering to create BTV Ignite. The initiative will develop a gigabit community infrastructure and the applications that use it. With help from U.S. Ignite, Burlington will join the growing list of gigabit communities.

An advisory committee is fueling interest in the project. Mayor Miro Weinberger describes the effort as a way to develop a tech friendly local economy and increase access for individuals and institutions. A recent Government Technology article quoted the Mayor:

“We believe we’re well on our way to being the first city in the country that provides gigabit access to every student from kindergarten through college and even graduate school here in Burlington,” Weinberger said. 

The City and its partner have developed five critical steps based on consultation with Kansas City, Chattanooga, and other gigabit communities:

1.    Develop Structure to Foster Applications-Driven Energy

Much like the KC Digital Drive in Kansas City, [Executive Director of U.S. Ignite Bill] Wallace said the mayor’s advisory committee must play a key role in helping drive development.

2.    Create the Most Robust Infrastructure

Wallace said this will be particularly necessary for schools, businesses and libraries.

3.    Embrace Technology Through Community Events and Hackathons

By setting up a continuous stream of events like community hackathons, digital sandboxes and a hacker homes network similar to one developed in Kansas City, the city will be able to focus more on app development for specific capabilities, like cybersecurity or the development of complex systems.

4.    Share Practices With Other Cities to Deploy Networks

This could also mean sharing practices on how to generate applications.

5.    Tap into Federal Resources

Wallace said looking to federally funded resources like the National Science Foundation will be important when building out the infrastructure and developing applications.

Burlington hopes to secure a Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) rack for its University of Vermont campus. The rack would come from the National Science Foundation and would allow UVM access to researchers at over 40 other universities.

The initiative also aims to create 60 next-generation applications and 200 "community test beds" where the new applications can be developed and eventually deployed.

At an October 15th event to announce the partnership, Wallace and Mayor Weinberger address the ongoing lawsuit between community owned Burlington Telecom and Citibank. The Burlington Free Press covered the event:

“We were aware of that, but basically the capability is there, and that makes Burlington a logical and very attractive candidate to become part of US Ignite,” Wallace said.

“There is some uncertainty about where the dispute with Citibank, CitiCapital is going, but we think it’s time to move forward with this conversation,” Weinberger added. “We think the high likelihood is that these resources are going to exist in this community for a long time to come.”

ECFiber: Significant Expansion in the Vermont Crowd-Funded Network

The East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network (ECFiber) continues to grow, tripling in size in just the past year. We reported last summer that the community owned network had raised the funding for an expansion. Fundraising and reach surpassed the original expansion plan and the network now boasts 180 miles. 

The Valley News recently reported that:

Next year, ECFiber plans to focus on connecting customers in unserved parts of Royalton, Strafford, Norwich, Tunbridge and Sharon.

ECFiber is seeking additional investment during this quarter to finance the work next year, and has set a goal of having more than 1,000 customers connected by the end of 2014.

ECFiber seeks funding by selling tax-exempt promissory notes to local investors. There are 23 member towns in the ECFiber consortium, including Montpelier. For detailed maps of service area and planned expansions, check out the ECFiber's Where Are We Working page.

The article goes on to note that Tim Nulty is planning to retire from his position as CEO of ValleyNet, the nonprofit behind ECFiber. Nulty will take on the role of board Chairman. Leslie Nulty will also shift from project coordinator and will continue as a ValleyNet board member. 

Leslie visited with Chris in the Broadband Bits podcast episode #9. She shared ECFiber's history and the two discussed the community owned network model that is ECFiber.

Vermont's ECFiber to Expand This Summer

Good news for Vermonters who want connectivity from the East Central Vermont Fiber Optic Network (ECFiber). The community owned network recently raised another $430,000 from local investors who purchased tax-exempt promissory notes. As a result, the nonprofit can now expand another 20 miles. Approximately 100 more households and businesses will soon have access.

Twenty-three towns belong to the consortium; Montpelier is the largest. The network currently serves 325 customers via 50 miles of fiber. Warren Johnston reports in the Valley News:

“Before the fall, we’ll have people connected in Chelsea, Vershire, Thetford, Tunbridge, Royalton and Sharon, and a lot of the people in Strafford, along with service to several neighborhoods in Norwich, [ECFiber Chariman Irv Thomas] said.

The nonprofit has raised about $3.5 million through grants and investment loans from community members.

Although residents wanting service are not required to loan money to ECFiber, the tax-free notes promise a good return for investors, ranging from 5.3 percent to 7.65 percent, depending on the type of note.

Johnston also spoke with Wynona Ward, an attorney with Have Justice Will Travel, a nonprofit legal service for victims of domestic violence and abuse in Vershire: 

“It’s just wonderful. It’s like going from the horse-and-buggy age to the jet age overnight,” said Ward, who got the service on April 23. “I’ll always remember the date. It’s made such a difference in our lives.”

The new system lets all of the firm’s five computers to be online at one time, something that the old system would not allow. Clients and lawyers now can send photographs and case files to her office, which would have crashed her previous system.

“We used to plan an hour a week to do our payroll online. Now, we can do it in a matter of minutes. It’s a tremendous savings of time,” she said. The new system also gives firm members an opportunity to keep up with online training.

“If we filed a grant application before, which can be 70 to 80 pages, we had to go to Hanover to use the computers. Now, we can do it from our office. And now, we’re also going to use social media to raise money. We never could do that before.”

Johnston also spoke with local educators at The Mountain School:

“We welcome the change. We love the remote, rural lifestyle, but it will be nice to have a better connection to the world. We’ll be able to update our website without having to drive to Hanover to do it. The better connection will also help our students, who are from all over the country, and the faculty members who live on campus,” [Director Alan] Smith said.

We watched ECFiber grow from a community idea to a community reality and look forward to watching it expand further. Despite interruptions from FairPoint that influenced a federal grant award to a less viable project, this community continues to find a way to do it themselves. To find out more the birth of this local project, listen to our podcast interview with one of the community leaders, Leslie Nulty.

Video: Burlington Telecom Coop Effort Moving Ahead

In December, 2012, a group of local residents decided to engage in an effort to turn beleaguered Burlington Telecom into a coop. The effort has advanced and the organization, Keep BT Local, continues to gain pledges. To date, the organization has collected pledges in the amount of $108,000 for equity and $156,000 in loan pledges.

Keep BT Local is ultimately shooting for membership pledges from about 4,000 residential and business customers. The goal has been to collect $250,000 worth of pledges to move forward with incorporation this month.

Local Chanel 17 carried a discussion on the effort to get more info on the business plan. Alan Matson and Don Schramm, who head up the Steering Committee talked with host, Matt Kelly, about the venture and took calls from viewers.

In addition to a discussion about the the heart of what is "local," the group discussed the business plan and where challenges may arise.

The discussion is about 30 minutes long.

Coop Status for Burlington Telecom? Maybe.....

Burlington Telecom may be headed for some changes. Due to the mismanagement of the prior Burlington Mayor Administration, the network took on an unsustainable amount of debt and damaged its reputation. Some of the plans to make the network sustainable again involve privatizing it. Unfortunately, as we have seen with public power privatizations, such an action typically results in worse services and higher prices due to the loss of local control.

Operating under the name Keep Our Telecom Local, a group of local residents and business leaders want to ensure BT remains owned by the community by turning it into a cooperative. At a December 13 public meeting, the group of about 50 volunteers gathered and talked strategy. According to a Burlington Free Press article on the meeting, attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss specific issues and plans.

The next step will be efforts to increase publicity for the movement and the creation of a business plan. Currently, a committee is forming to determine the best way to file for a Vermont Certificate of Public Good. Another committee is looking into formation of a board of directors.

Most municipal networks do not have to contend with the problems that have plagued Burlington Telecom. But even with all of the problems faced by this publicly owned network, the community still sees great value in rescuing it rather than abandoning it. The Burlington community appreciates the incredible value of keeping their broadband resource local. From the article:

Don Schramm, one of the organizers of tentatively named Green Mountain Broadband Fiber, said it makes sense to pursue a Third Way.

“Keeping our telecom locally owned means that the jobs stay here, the money spent stays here, the profit stays here — and most importantly, the control stays here,” Schramm said. “We will have a broadband cooperative responsible to our community needs, not the profit wants of out-of-state owners.”

We applaud the community for recognizing the value of this great asset, the importance of local control, and their efforts to keep BT local.