The next few weeks and months will be a pivotal time for a region long suffering from a lack of access to high-speed internet.
Northeast Kingdom Community Broadband, the communications union district formed in March 2020, has undergone significant growth from the original towns that signed on at Town Meeting 16 months ago and is now the largest CUD in the state and encompasses nearly every town in the three counties.
The last year has seen the district sign up additional towns, launch a pilot project to expand service in the Concord and Waterford area, partner with an existing provider in the Greensboro - Albany area to connect un-served homes, and undertake a feasibility study. The CUD also recently completed a multi-year business plan that outlines a phased fiber-optic build-out with the intent to provide incredibly fast and reliable service to every address in the region in the next 5 to 10 years. In recent days the CUD’s volunteer board members have been presenting the broad scope of this plan to area select boards, although certain details like specific timing and routes for the build-out and potential pricing for service remain in flux and confidential.
In addition, the CUD has seen a rapid expansion in its financial position from announcing in its year in review for town meeting this spring that it had raised $743,000 in grant funding to now looking at a potential influx of $40 million in funding through the state budget and federal COVID recovery funds.
The CUD has a hefty list of tasks ahead of it though. It needs to hire an executive director to replace Christine Hallquist, the CUD’s administrator who was recently appointed by Gov. Phil Scott to serve as the Executive Director of the newly created Vermont Community Broadband Board. The CUD also needs to hire a project director to oversee the myriad upcoming projects, translate its business plan into the highly technical network design plans, and select a partner organization to serve as the CUD’s customer-facing Internet Service Provider.
“Those are all pieces that we are having conversations about,” said NEK Community Broadband Board Chairman Evan Carlson, of Sutton.
NEK Broadband has identified over 33,300 addresses it would like to serve in the region, 20,200 of which are either under-served or un-served, meaning they lack basic broadband service much less the CUD’s hoped for minimum of 100 Mbps symmetrical service.
The NEK has roughly 40% of the state’s under- and un-served addresses. During a press conference this week, June Tierney, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, discussed the state’s many infrastructure needs, including broadband, and the state’s advocacy for further federal investment. Tierney reported that there are 54,000 un-served or under-served addresses across the state.
“Broadband is a necessity, not a nice to have alternative to landline telephones or cable television,” said Tierney. “And like a road system, Vermont’s broadband road system needs work, continuous work.”
Tierney highlighted the work of the state’s 9 CUDs working to connect these addresses. She noted by some estimates it will take between $362 million and $439 million to provide basic broadband to the current under/un-served addresses and $1 billion to provide every Vermont address with the type of symmetrical service NEK Broadband has set as its standard.
Carlson said estimates for the total build-out in the NEK are about $120 million.
The build-out will be complex from a funding and logistical perspective. Through its phased approach, NEK Broadband intends to create enough infrastructure and a customer base to be able to have the assets necessary to go to the bond market to acquire additional funding. Like the state officials announced Tuesday, Carlson said NEK Broadband is also hopeful for further federal infrastructure investment.
The build-out is also largely dependent upon working collaboratively with 7 utilities that serve the NEK and own and control utility poles that the fiber optic lines depend on. Bottlenecks exist everywhere in this process, from limitations on utility’s to perform pole preparation work, enough contractors to string the fiber lines, availability of the necessary equipment purchases, access to funding and more.
In a talking points memo prepared for NEK Broadband Board members to share with their communities, it states the project could take 5 years in ideal circumstances or up to 10 years. NEK Broadband, as outlined in its business plan, would need to build 2,803 miles of backbone and distribution fiber. While plans are still being worked out and many decisions still remain, the CUD intends to start in the “central-northern portion of the NEK” with a backbone line through the heart of the NEK with an additional backbone ring to the east and west built later. Service lines would then be strung from the primary backbone lines.
Phase II and III would focus on the western ring and service drops and Phase IV would focus on the eastern ring.
The CUD notes they intend to begin serving some towns in all three counties in Phase I of the 4-phase plan. Carlson said part of the initial consideration is where to build that will provide sufficient enough customers to help open access to funding for the future phases.
Messaging will be part of that process for unveiling build-out specifics about where and when the CUD will build. “Recognizing this idea that no one wants to be last in line and how we are making sure that this decision is done in a way that allows communities to buy into it more holistically,” said Carlson during an executive board meeting earlier this year.
NEK Broadband needs to complete a lot of work and get in fast for hiring contractors, securing make-ready contracts for the poles with the various utilities and purchase equipment, as broadband build-out is happening at a feverish pace from coast to coast.
“We might be shooting ourselves in the foot by being so aggressive by trying to serve everyone,” said Carlson of the CUD’s growth and ambitious plans during an interview this week. “But in some pockets of the NEK they have zero businesses coming to help. If we don’t connect them no one else will connect them. … We have to make this work by including everyone.”
Carlson commended the dedication and passion of the dozens of community board members that have volunteered countless hours to helping make this project a reality.
“The biggest thing for us is making sure we have a partner that understands and is committed to understanding and working with us to deliver service to the most rural pockets of the state and is with us for the long haul,” said Carlson.
During a July 2 executive committee meeting, board member Nick Anzalone of St. Johnsbury summed up the message the CUD is hoping to share with communities and select boards.
“If nothing else happens, everyone needs to know that we’ve been busting our asses, advocating in the legislature, coming up with this business plan, …,” said Anzalone. “We have this business plan and we think we can do this. The numbers are attractive enough for a community project, not attractive enough for a for-profit, which reinforces our opinion that we are the correct solution for our area for universal service. That is what we need to make sure that people know.”