NEK Broadband selected three partners last week that will help the communications union district (CUD) build its proposed fiber network and deliver high-speed internet across the Northeast Kingdom.
The volunteer board representing the CUD’s 45 member towns approved a joint partnership with Mission Broadband, National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, and Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom.
The ultimate goal, which will take 5 or more years to realize, is to build a proposed 2,500 miles of fiber optic cable to develop a robust network capable of delivering gigabit internet service to every address in the region with a focus on the roughly 20,000 under-served households that currently don’t meet minimum standards of broadband service.
“Creating a universally available, fast, reliable and affordable internet option as soon as we can is critical to meeting the economic, educational, health and social needs of our residents and businesses,” said Christa Shute, NEK Broadband’s interim executive director.
Two of the three partners are familiar to NEK Broadband and are currently working on projects in the region.
NRTC was brought on by NEK Broadband to help develop the CUD’s business plan and is now working on high-level design and the executable project plan that will more specifically define and outline NEK Broadband’s build-out phases. Going forward NRTC will serve to develop the more technical construction plans and serve as construction manager for the duration of the build-out and inspect the finished project, said Shute in an interview Tuesday.
“NRTC is a member-owned cooperative, and this type of undertaking is what we are all about. We plan to leverage our considerable experience of building more than 40 broadband deployments and 100,000-plus miles of fiber in similar rural communities across the country,” said Jim DaBramo, president of NRTC Broadband Solutions.
NRTC has helped rural electric cooperatives build internet networks across the country and is familiar with the project needs and challenges facing the build-out in the NEK.
“We found that NRTC had a better understanding of the project and the challenges that we were facing than we felt was demonstrated by the other entity,” Shute explained to the NEK Broadband board while discussing approving the partnership proposal during their Sept. 9 meeting. “Their approaches to design is robust and we feel that the investment upfront in the more robust design approach will … decrease ISP and network operational costs.”
Mission Broadband, which is currently assisting NEK Broadband as project manager for the construction of a pilot project underway in the Waterford and Concord area, will serve NEK Broadband in an advisory capacity, lending staff and consultant capacities to the CUD. NEK Broadband is one of the newest, yet largest CUD’s in the state and has recently ramped up with paid staff to supplement the volunteer board. Mission Broadband would assist the CUD for between 1-3 years with regulatory support and advice and help in future transitions as the CUD further develops operational and oversight capacity.
According to Jim Rogers, president of Mission Broadband, “This project includes vast, rural, and difficult-to-serve counties. Our decades of experience working in Vermont, combined with the expertise of our partners and coordination with NEK communities, will ensure that we reach our common goal of bringing affordable and reliable internet service to all un-served and under-served areas.”
The final partner is Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom, which will serve as the Internet Service Provider providing customer service, billing and handling some of the maintenance and final connections from the utility pole to the customer. WCVT will also serve as the network operator at first, a role NEK Broadband hopes to assume in future phases. WCVT serves 16,000 customers currently and has over 100 years in the telecom industry.
Eric Haskin, president and CEO of Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom stated, “We recognize the importance of this project. Our decades-long experience bringing fiber-optic internet to our own customers in Vermont will enable NEK Broadband to activate service to customers more quickly than would otherwise be possible.”
Shute said the three companies, that submitted a joint partnership proposal, was one of 7 that were submitted to the CUD.
Shute said the CUD is in the process of applying for funding from $150 million in funding that was made available by the state legislature this year. But by some estimates, NEK Broadband’s share of that money would only cover about 25 percent of the total estimated cost of the full fiber build-out. There is the potential for future federal and state infrastructure funding, and the CUD will likely need to get financing for future portions of the build by leveraging its initial phases.
Shute indicated the hope is that NEK Broadband can begin signing up new customers for the initial phases of the build-out by the end of 2022, but there is a long way to go.
“I think that this is a huge move and I’m really excited that we have partners now and that really gives us depth to really do this right and get it started,” Shute told the CUD board after it voted to approve the partnership last week. “I want you to know that we are working our tails off to try to make the spring construction season and it’s going to be a hard lift to get there for a lot of different reasons. … There’s a lot of people out there that have told us that we are not going to do the next construction season and I am determined to prove them wrong.”