BRATTLEBORO—Sovernet has extended the deadline to June 1 for schools to commit to its Vermont FiberConnect program.
Gregg Noble, Sovernet business development manager, said that school supervisory unions needed more time to understand the program and its economic development repercussions for their communities.
“[With this project], schools are the anchors, and they have an economic development impact on the town,” said Noble, adding that these roles are not traditional ones for the schools.
The lack of high-speed Internet access in many parts of Windham County has been a perennial complaint. Although residential broadband access may be a little farther off, Sovernet hopes to fill in some gaps by connecting schools and other institutions to a fiber-optic network.
Sovernet won a $33.4 million federal grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration last year to build a 773-mile fiber-optic network in seven of Vermont’s 14 counties.
With that grant, Vermont FiberConnect, a public-private collaboration between Sovernet and the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, was born.
The “middle-mile” system would provide the fundamental infrastructure that will make it possible for Sovernet and other providers to sell high-speed Internet services to customers in these communities.
The capacity of Sovernet’s fiber-optic network will exceed the high-speed Internet goals of both the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and the Vermont Department of Education (DOE), said Noble.
The FCC’s plan calls for schools, hospitals, and government buildings to have a broadband network capacity of at least 1 gigabit per second. The DOE is calling for 50-megabit-per-second fiber-based Internet connections.
Noble describes the fiber-optic network as “core infrastructure” that will, in turn, allow other Internet providers to bring broadband to private residences — what telecommunications people call “the last mile.”
The costs of construction break down to $40,000 per mile for the fiber-optic network, and $30,000 to cover the electronics and technology at each institution, said Noble.
Noble said that the federal grant and Sovernet’s contribution will cover 100 percent of the construction costs. He said that the $12 million, plus interest, that Sovernet has invested is almost what the company sold for in 2005.
“None of it is on the local taxpayer,” he said.
But if schools and towns don’t participate in Vermont FiberConnect now, towns will have bear the entire cost to bring fiber-optic lines to the community in the future.
Getting it to the schools
Because the service is not mandated, like water or electricity, bringing high-speed Internet to communities is a challenge, said Jeffrey Lewis, the executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.
Lewis also serves on the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) steering committee with Noble.
Noble said that, in Sovernet’s plan, Windham County is slated to receive the most fiber-optic miles, and also has the highest number of anchor institutions wanting to sign on to the project.
One reason, said Noble, is that Windham County institutions responded to Sovernet’s requests for letters of support when the company originally applied for the grant.
But now that the project is rolling out, said Noble, issues of leadership, understanding, and a willingness to commit financially have varied from school to school.
“Schools educate kids, and that’s what they should do,” said Noble. “But [we should] not just look at this as a school issue.”
“They’re at a decision point they’re not used to,” added Lewis.
Lewis said that signing on to the project was a challenge for the schools, because the government grant requires that they go against tradition and work with businesses.
Lewis noted that the towns of Wilmington and Dover have worked with their schools to help make their financial commitment to the FiberConnect program possible.
Wilmington and Dover have made expanded broadband and cellular coverage a priority in their Bi-Town Economic Development plan.
Laura Sibilia, a Dover School Board vice-chair, a SeVEDS member, and the executive director of the Mount Snow Chamber of Commerce, first heard of FiberConnect at a SeVEDS meeting.
“The project has come down the pipe so fast, and it’s got to be completed so fast,” said Sibilia. “People don’t understand [the importance].”
The project would fulfill a “huge priority” for Dover and Wilmington by increasing Internet access. But the possibility of the schools having to pay a higher monthly service fee was another story, she said.
During the SeVEDS meeting, Sibilia and Lisa Sullivan, a fellow SeVEDS member from Wilmington, looked at each other and said, “This is going to be a problem.”
The state puts such tremendous pressure on small schools to keep costs down that a school board’s only “responsible answer is no,” said Sibilia.
Given the pressure on small schools in Vermont, said Sibilia, “it’s ironic the grant requires the infrastructure to go to these small schools.”
The Dover school board ultimately decided that it had all the Internet capacity it needed but would work with the town if the town showed interest.
In the end, the Dover Selectboard agreed to pay the school’s monthly service fee, said Sibilia.
The town will finance the fiber-optic connection point at the school, because the Internet will really be serving the townspeople, she said.
Sibilia credits Bill Colvin, former bi-town planner, and Patrick Moreland, Dover economic development specialist, with getting Dover and Wilmington to the point at which they could jump on an opportunity like FiberConnect.
Sticker shock versus long-term benefits
Noble said that sticker shock has made some schools nervous. Although the grant pays for the networks’ installation, schools will have to pay for the service in the future.
The decision for rural schools will probably be easier than for more urban schools, said Noble.
According to Noble, most rural schools already pay $700 to $800 per month for a T1 connection with an average speed of 1.5 megabits per second.
On the fiber-optic network, they’ll pay about the same, but for a 100-megabit-per-second connection, he said.
Urban schools, however, pay roughly $80 to $100 per month for an 8-to-10-megabit-per-second connection, he said.
It feels like a leap to go to $700, even for a 100-megabit-per-second connection, he said.
But Noble hopes that bigger schools, like Brattleboro Union High School, will look at the cost another way.
Through the FCC’s E-Rate program, the federal government offsets the telecommunications costs for most schools and libraries. For most Vermont schools, said Noble, the E-Rate program covers between 50 and 70 percent of the cost.
So the $700 per month for Sovernet’s fiber-optic network drops to $350 per month, said Noble. Subtract the $100 that the larger schools pay on average, and the cost goes down to an additional $250 per month for 66 times the capacity.
Noble said that the subsidies schools receive will last for five years.
“In all cases, the value of the grant exceeds what their investment will be over five years,” said Noble.
Sovernet designed the original fiber-optic cable route around the needs of participants who sent letters of support, said Noble.
But, he added, Brattleboro would have received the network anyway. Because of its location on Interstate 91, Brattleboro acts as a critical hub for Vermont’s connection to the rest of the country.
Lewis agreed, saying that Brattleboro’s location serves the logistical needs of area companies that ship products nationally.
The 773-mile network will feed 340 schools, colleges, libraries, health-care facilities, state government buildings, public safety facilities, and cellular carrier towers.
In July 2010, Sovernet applied for the monies jointly with the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, Vermont state colleges, Vermont Law School, New England Telehealth Consortium, Vermont Department of Libraries, and Vermont DOE.
The federal government required matching funds to qualify for the grant. According to Noble, Sovernet is pitching in $12 million toward the project. The state has pledged $2 million, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $400,000 earmarked for libraries.
Noble said that the federal grant guarantees that independent providers can connect to the fiber-optic network and “purchase wholesale” services from Sovernet.
Sovernet must have all 773 miles constructed and the 340 anchor institutions connected by the grant’s July 2013 deadline, said Noble.
As a “good faith agreement with the schools,” said Noble, Sovernet will start building the network before all the institutions’ contracts are signed.
Sovernet wants to “go to contract” with participating institutions in time for the fall 2011 E-Rate season, said Noble.
Noble said that the Internet is changing fast.
In the 1990s, dial-up access seemed fast to users because the Internet moved data that was primarily text-based. But now, dial-up feels slow because of the shift to photos, audio, and video.
In the future, he said, data on the Internet will be mostly video, and the current infrastructure won’t be able to handle it.
“If we do not put in this [fiber-optic] infrastructure today, five years from today, we’ll be left behind,” said Noble.