Broadband

As the Lamoille FiberNet communications union district begins its work toward ensuring every residence in the county has access to high-speed internet, Mansfield Community Fiber is looking to cover the same ground faster.

Leslie and Tim Nulty, the couple that runs Mansfield Community Fiber, met with the selectboards of Cambridge and Belvidere recently to update them on their ongoing fiber network buildout plans for both towns.

Though districts like Lamoille FiberNet were established to bring high-speed internet specifically to underserved, out-of-the-way rural residences that private providers aren’t economically incentivized to serve, the Nulties are promising to do just that, particularly if they have the towns’ blessings, even while they are still technically members of the communications districts.

Fresh off an agreement that saw their company build out an extensive fiber network in Fletcher, the Nulties went to the Cambridge Selectboard Nov. 1 to gauge the town’s interest in supporting Mansfield Fiber’s pursuit of grant-funded expansion of their fiber network to underserved addresses in the town.

Though almost all grant funding available for communications infrastructure projects flows through the Vermont Community Broadband Board and is only available to a communications district if the town is a member of such a district, as Cambridge is, the Nulties told town leaders that other grant opportunities are available, particularly with the support from the town, could potentially allow Mansfield Fiber to reach those out-of-the-way Cambridge addresses faster than Lamoille FiberNet.

Mansfield Community Fiber has nearly finished its fiber buildout across an estimated 90 percent of both Cambridge and the even more rural Belvidere.

The communications company has built extensive networks in Cambridge-adjacent towns like Waterville, Fletcher and some of Fairfax. Despite having only about 3,000 residents, Cambridge is served by three different private communications companies, including Comcast and Stowe Cable. Mansfield Fiber has a policy of not building new fiber over any viable existing infrastructure.

The Nulties are quick to lay out their bona fides and qualifications that make them a superior builder of internet infrastructure and provider of internet services. Tim Nulty formerly worked for the World Bank, overseeing telecommunications buildouts in countries across the world. The couple helped successful cooperative projects in Vermont like ECFiber in east-central Vermont.

“When we started MC Fiber, despite the fact that we intellectually support cooperative public ownership of these kinds of networks but having been through the hassle of doing it with a co-op, we decided not to do it that way with MC fiber,” Leslie Nulty said. “If you behave as a community oriented operation and not a profits-at-all-costs, rape-and-pillage-type operation, people will treat you as that regardless of what kind of incorporation document you have.”

Ultimately, the Cambridge Selectboard held off on deciding how to proceed with Mansfield Fiber’s request for support until they heard back from their representatives to the communications district about Lamoille FiberNet’s plans.

Meanwhile, Mansfield Fiber plans to continue building.

“We have some grants, but they’re trivial and we don’t need them. We build the network with commercially available equity, and debt from banks and financial institutions,” Tim Nulty said. “We do not need grants. That gives us a huge advantage in terms of the flexibility and speed with which we can work.”

Fiber tension

Despite their claim that they’re sympathetic to cooperative ownership and a declared lack of ill-will on either side, a seemingly unavoidable tension has grown between Mansfield Fiber and the communications districts.

According to the Nulties, Mansfield Fiber has reached out to districts across northeastern Vermont in the interest of cooperation and received no response at all.

While Mansfield Fiber considered a recent request for proposals from Lamoille FiberNet for a third-party provider to operate and maintain its fiber networks, the Nulties balked as they prefer to only get involved in telecommunications projects if they have a contract to design and build the networks themselves.

Tim Nulty, along with Stowe Cable’s Rick Rothammer, publicly expressed his skepticism when Lamoille FiberNet partnered with another district, Northwest Fiberworx, to secure an operating deal with Google, which fell apart after Lamoille FiberNet realized its projections were wrong, making the deal unviable.

With their projects serving most of Cambridge, Waterville and Belvidere nearly complete, a natural next step for Mansfield Fiber would be to expand eastward into Lamoille County, to towns like Eden and Johnson, ostensibly the same territory Lamoille FiberNet is looking to serve.

Tim Nulty confirmed Mansfield Fiber would like to continue to build into these towns, depending on resources and customer demand.

At a Vermont Community Broadband Board meeting Monday, board member Laura Sibilia obliquely said that any potential conflict between private providers and communications districts might require a need for additional outreach or other resources.

Christine Hallquist, executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, emphasized in an interview that, while the communications districts are expected to build themselves into viable businesses, they are not in the business of competing with private providers.

Regardless of what private providers like Mansfield Fiber are planning, the district’s main goal remains simple: to provide high-speed, reliable internet to residences private providers can’t or won’t serve.

“Many private providers fight for the higher density areas, but don’t serve those end-of-the-line areas because they aren’t profitable,” Hallquist said. “That’s exactly why the CUD was set up, and that’s why they’re wired for a universal service plan.”

Getting going

Meanwhile, Lamoille FiberNet is moving on from the failed Google deal with a focus on reaching the county’s underserved addresses.

The communications district’s business plan was just completed and it’s now preparing to apply for a construction grant with the broadband board, according to the district’s executive director Val Davis, with a plan to connect its first customers next summer.

The district is staffing up as well, having recently hired Fabian Bourgeois, who previously worked in fiber deployment at the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, as a construction project engineer.

Lisa Birmingham, a cable industry veteran, has also joined the district.

In the aftermath of the Google deal, the district is looking for an operator. The request for proposals will close in mid-December and the district has already received quality bids, according to Davis.

While some members of the broadband board have voiced their concern about potential gaps in funding between the slew of money Vermont has received for internet expansion from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, Davis is confident that won’t be a problem.

“We have always known that the Vermont Community Broadband Board’s stated goal is to provide grants that will cover 60 percent of our buildout and we will have to raise the other 40 percent either by going to the bond market or commercial lenders,” he said in an email. “After the first two years of construction utilizing grant dollars, we will then have generated revenues and built assets that we can leverage for the purposes of bonding or borrowing.”

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