Update: We have covered the second round of financing from ECFiber here.
The East Central Vermont Fiber Network, connecting some 23 rural towns, announced back in July that they would self finance a pilot project as a preliminary step to securing the full funding for the project.
Right around Thanksgiving, last year, David Brown updated the community on progress via an article in the Vermont Standard:
It would have been terrific to get the $50million needed to build out all 35,000 telephone and electric poles with 1,500 miles of fiber optic cable. Along the way, we learned an important lesson. We noticed that government money went to existing telephone companies to expand existing networks rather than funding start-ups like ours. That’s when the ECFibernauts decided on a change in strategy: build a small network, get a few real customers, and deliver rock-solid ultra-fast Internet to them as a proof of concept – all using our own money. Then, when all the critical components are up and running, go to the commercial markets for funding needed to expand out to all 23 towns.
The ECFiber Governing Board and our technology partners ValleyNet, Inc. are fortunate to have several experienced financiers within our ranks. Working with our attorneys (to keep everything legal) ECFiber is reaching out to the community with a private offering of tax-exempt promissory notes. As of this writing, we have raised more than three-quarters of what is needed to complete Phase I of our project. The ECFiber hub is now under construction on Waterman Road in Royalton and an initial pole attachment application for 500 poles is being processed. Phase I will bring ECFiber service to selected businesses, schools, town facilities and residents in Bethel, Barnard, Stockbridge and Royalton.
This is a commitment that few other communities have made -- self-financing a start up portion. It is actually quite inspiring, though one quickly grasps the huge need from the stories EC Fiber has collected. Any community hoping to organize a network should copy this EC Fiber page. With a simple form, you can documents hundreds of individual stories of people who want better broadband.
Consider what Cynthia in Norwich contributed:
I live in a remote part of Norwich with little population but much need. I am an artist and photographer, mostly working at home. Due to some health issues, I am not always able to go somewhere else to access high-speed internet, nor is it convenient to do so. I have to drive 6-8 miles to the nearest library, and can only take a small laptop which doesn't have all the information to run my business. I have a web site (www.creaturekinships.com) which takes forever, on flaky dial-up to revise, and downloading updates and security measures can take hours. Since I work with art and photography and am a moderator on a photography web site (NatureScapes.net), I can't do my work efficiently as it also takes several minutes to get images...IF the phone line doesn't crash while downloading (which it often does.) I typically need to look at and comment on 5-15 images a day. I would be looking at more like 20-30 images if I could.
EC Fiber had applied to the Vermont Telecommunications Authority for a $4.2 million grant to build the backbone of the network and connect a number of community anchor institutions as well as some 800 homes in the most rural and least competitive areas.
In a plea for supporters to write the VTA and other officials in support of the project, Ian Stewart described local hardships:
I understand the Vermont Law School has experienced an uptick in potential students opting not to attend VLS because they can’t get broadband access from their rented accommodations. Beside renting apartments, these temporary Vermonters bring much needed revenue to our local businesses and contribute to the daily lives of our communities. We all lose every time a VLS applicant withdraws his candidacy.
Even if VTA wanted to prioritize funding for ECFiber, its hands are limited by the law, which limits where VTA can fund:
The RUS award was great news to VTel shareholders, but it stopped dead in its tracks any plans the VTA may have had to help other organizations bring high speed internet service to rural Vermont. The Vermont legislature passed a bill with language that prohibits the VTA from funding telecom development in any area where another entity has a “legally binding commitment” to make telecom investments. That includes VTel’s award and Fairpoint’s DSL build-out commitments. The language effectively poisoned the waters for anyone else seeking VTA funding, including ECFiber’s efforts to bring ultra high speed Internet to 23 area towns.
This is a failure to distinguish between broadband as infrastructure (wireline) and broadband as stopgap (wireless). Nonetheless, ECFiber does qualify for some funds under the "Backroads Broadband Program" for middle mile and the most unserved households. The end of this article in the Vermont Standard is a call to action for people to contact the VTA.
Regardless of the VTA funding, EC FIber is moving forward on its pilot:
At ECFiber’s November Governing Board meeting, ValleyNet staff reported that the Phase I fiber-optic network build has begun with the first round of pole surveys conducted with Fairpoint and CVPS, as required by regulation.
As of Jan 6, had raised $907,500 from the community for the first phase, exceeding their goal.
ECFiber Governing Board Chair Loredo Sola of North Pomfret said, "This is a very important and hard-fought first step. Phase I establishes a baseline for building and operating cost, build time, expected market penetration, and resulting revenue. That baseline gives ECFiber a solid platform on which to build its network to all twenty-three ECFiber member towns."
"More importantly," said Sola, "this community-raised financing demonstrates confidence in a community-owned and managed network as well as frustration that public and private promises to bring us broadband have fallen way short. Here's an example in true Vermont tradition of communities stepping up and taking charge."
As it moves forward, it moves out of the shadow of Burlington Telecom's problems -- though detractors will undoubtedly continue to try to tie them together.