GUILFORD—How’s your internet connection?
If you answered, “What internet connection?” you’re not alone.
According to data provided by Broadband Now, a company that collects internet service provider and connectivity data nationwide and breaks it down by state and region, Windham County is underserved. Only 7.3 percent of homes here have access to broadband speeds of 1 gigabit of data per second, compared with just over 14 percent statewide.
Broadband Now rates Vermont as the 31st most connected state, which isn’t a comforting thought to someone trying to get online or start a business here.
State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, is also director of Regional Economic Development Strategies and Programs at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. She is working at the state and local level to improve — or sometimes to establish — Vermonters’ access to high-speed internet.
“Connectivity comes up all the time when the BDCC talks to towns,” Sibilia said.
In both her legislative work and her day job, Sibilia has connected residents, officials from the local, state, and federal levels, business owners, and representatives from service providers to try to solve the problem.
What Sibilia often tells residents and local government leaders is, “your community’s connection isn’t getting better unless you do something."
That message was heard loud and clear in Guilford.
At the July 23 regular Selectboard meeting, Board Chair Sheila Morse presented details on research she and her colleague Gordon Little conducted on bringing high-speed internet to all residents of Guilford, and she gave some background on the subject.
In 2013 and 2014, the town hosted a series of visits with representatives from the Vermont Council on Rural Development. In this process, Council members work with townspeople to identify the three most important issues facing the community. One of those, Morse said, is to improve the town’s economy. To do that, the town needs “vast internet access,” she said.
Morse noted that Guilford is an attractive town, especially for newcomers, that offers the best of both worlds.
“It’s a lovely rural community” with easy access to national and international travel and large cities, she said. “But, there are so many pockets of our community that do not have even the minimum standard [for internet connection], which is 4 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload [speed],” Morse said.
The current federal standard for broadband is 25 Mbps for downloading and 3 Mbps for uploads.
“Anecdotally, people in many places in Guilford cannot conduct their business [and] they can’t telecommute,” she said.
“Faster internet access would create a really good opportunity for increased economic viability in town,” Morse said, and noted this is included in the Town Plan.
Morse told The Commons, “I have been to multiple regional economic development seminars and conferences where the No. 1 clarion call is that one of the three underlying criteria for improving the economic viability of this region is faster internet access."
A frustrating process
A few years ago, Morse and Little worked with residents in Halifax, Marlboro, and Vernon to try to create a regional broadband network. “For a number of reasons, that fell through, but we have continued to pursue information,” Morse said.
Overall, Morse described her experiences trying to get her neighbors connected as “frustrating.”
In one example she shared with her colleagues, Morse received an estimate for installing fiber-optic internet on Melendy Hill Road.
The 2.1-mile road has access to a fiber optic line on Route 5, she said, but to extend it one mile up the road to serve the nine households whose members committed to subscribing, it would cost $84,000. Each household would have to pay $7,000 to run the line, and sign a two-year contract with the provider.
Another fiber optic estimate Morse got was for $35,000 per mile, and $1,000 per household.
“Town-wide, it’s a $3 million project,” said Morse.
Board member Verandah Porche noted the issue is about more than high-speed internet. “It’s also about reliability. Right now, we don’t have reliability,” she said.
Morse said she had met with a variety of officials, including Sibilia, Department of Housing and Community Development Commissioner Katie Buckley, former Guilford Selectboard Chair Anne Rider, Department of Public Service Telecommunications and Connectivity Division Director Clay Purvis, and Mike Loucy of the Vermont Electric Power Company or Velco.
What does Velco have to do with high-speed internet?
Velco, the company that operates the state’s power grid, has 55 substations that reach nearly 70 percent of Vermont’s towns. What connects those substations to monitor and control the state’s electric system is a fiber-optic communications network.
Cooperative fiber future
According to a Jan. 16, 2015, Vermont Public Radio article written by Steve Zind, Kerrick Johnson, then the vice president of strategy and communication at Velco, announced the company’s ability to use their fiber optic line running throughout the state to help connect underserved areas to the internet.
This came during a late-2014 Vermont Council on Rural Development conference on Vermont’s digital economy.
The program, called “Fiber-to-the-Home,” or FTTH, isn’t unique to Velco. Across the country, particularly in rural areas, hundreds of electric and telephone cooperatives are doing double-duty as internet service providers.
In Hannah Trostle’s Nov. 28, 2017, article, “The Fiber Future is Cooperative: Policy Brief On Rural Cooperative Fiber Deployment,” which appears on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s website [ilsr.org], she writes, “Farmers first created utility cooperatives because large private companies did not recognize the importance of connecting rural America to electricity or telephone service. Now, these cooperatives are building fiber infrastructure.”
Trostle also notes, “AT&T receives about $427 million each year in rural subsidies to bring Internet service to rural America, but AT&T does not invest in rural fiber networks.”
Although Velco isn’t a cooperative, Velco officials, like their cooperative counterparts, see the value in using pre-existing, often publicly-funded, networks to serve the public.
As Johnson told Vermont Public Radio in 2015, “How can we add value for the folks who paid for [the power grid]? Because ultimately the value goes right back to ratepayers and at the same time advances public policy, without compromising the fundamental purpose of why we built this in the first place.”
For Guilford to move forward on town-wide FTTH, it needs a few things. One is a feasibility study.
Sibilia said the BDCC can help town officials ” put together a feasibility study, understand what their challenges are, and identify costs. We can help bring in strategic resources and other regional perspectives, troubleshoot, and brainstorm.”
For Morse, a crucial component for Guilford getting an FTTH is finding someone to lead it.
“This is not a project for the Selectboard alone,” and because it’s so big, “it needs a project lead,” she said.
Morse told The Commons she wants the Selectboard to find an “entrepreneurial individual who is able to write a plan, secure funding to support her/himself, and drive [the] project forward.”