Sometimes, when you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself. And when it comes to internet access in rural areas, some Lamoille County towns are doing just that — working to build a better broadband.
The Lamoille County Planning Commission has been awarded a $60,000 Broadband Innovation Grant from the Vermont Department of Public Service to lay the groundwork for a small network of locally-accessible broadband. The grant money comes in two phases, for studying it and for implementing it.
According to planner Lea Kilvadyova, the first $30,000 is already being used to conduct a lay of the land, such as finding where all the utility poles are, and surveying residents about their internet use and needs.
“It will create a high-level design” of what a local broadband network would look like, she said.
At the same time, seven of the 10 Lamoille County towns are working to form a “communications union district” to run it. The county’s two largest towns, Morristown and Stowe — they also have some of the region’s widest broadband access — have not signed on to become charter members of the to-be-named district, although Kilvadyova said any town could vote to join later.
And Elmore already belongs to the fledgling CVFiber communications union district, which serves 18 central Vermont towns, mostly in Washington County.
CVFiber is about a year ahead of Lamoille County — no fiber optic cable yet, but with a survey wrapped up and a feasibility study underway.
Kilvadyova said CVFiber was the second district formed in Vermont.
The pioneer is ECFiber in east-central Vermont, with 24 member towns and more than 4,000 active customers as of last October.
Not a luxury
Kilvadyova said three other communications union districts were formed around the state on Town Meeting Day, and others were in the works until the pandemic hit. Current state law requires that a special town meeting be held in all would-be member communities to form them, but with large gatherings off the table for now, that is next to impossible.
A bill, H.958, would change the law to allow town select boards to vote to form the districts without a special meeting, at least “during a declared state of emergency due to COVID-19.”
Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, is a supporter of the bill, which passed the House in late May and is being worked on in the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Rogers said there’s been much talk about attracting and retaining younger people in Vermont, and as someone in her mid-20s, she feels like she’s part of a group of “digital pioneers,” because you really can’t attract high-tech jobs with last century’s infrastructure.
“To be a part of the global community and live rurally is still this new concept,” she said. “So, there are a lot of rural pioneers trying to make this work.”
Rogers’ generation grew up with internet — she was 23 when elected in 2018 — but being from Waterville, she didn’t really have access until middle school.
“Internet didn’t really matter growing up, in elementary school,” she said. Her home was using dial-up service when she was a teenager, which wasn’t that long ago.
Internet does matter in elementary school now, especially now. Rogers said the pandemic has made it “much less difficult to get across the idea that this is a necessity, not a luxury.”
Despite calls for a better internet infrastructure, often the only places in Vermont’s most rural towns with adequate internet are those along the main roads, Rogers said. That creates a “doughnut hole” where the center of the town might be OK, but good luck in the outskirts.
Rogers said a communications union district could own the infrastructure and contract with internet service providers just for the service, which ostensibly could make broadband cheaper for residents in those towns.
ECFiber, for instance, offers its base internet with download speeds of 25 megabits per second for $64 a month. It also has its 800mbps “wicked fast” internet for $156/month.
Comcast may offer lower prices for an introductory period, but its standard 25mbps internet is about $90 a month.
In a communications union district, “any money that comes in from the ratepayers goes right back to fixing infrastructure,” Rogers said.
Need for speed
The loose definition of broadband is anything besides dial-up. But the FCC takes that further, and defines broadband as a connection with speeds of at least 25mbps for downloads and 3mbps for uploads (presented as 25-over-three, or 25/3).
For the most part, the smaller the town, or farther removed from population centers, the slower the internet. In six of the 10 towns in the county, fewer than a quarter of the buildings have 25/3 speed.
• In Belvidere, it’s 6.6 percent.
• Waterville, 11.6 percent.
• Wolcott, 12.4 percent.
• Eden, 16.7 percent.
• Elmore, 17.1 percent.
• Cambridge, 24.9 percent.
There are exceptions elsewhere in Vermont: Fully 100 percent of tiny Mount Tabor, about 10 miles south of Rutland and boasting a population of 260, has 100/100 internet, the fastest there is, as do neighboring Tinmouth and Wallingford, with their respective populations of roughly 600 and 2,000.
While wireless access points, satellite internet and portable Wi-Fi hotspots work in a pinch for email and web browsing, Kilvadyova said fiber optic cables are the only things that can deliver symmetrical speed — that’s 100/100.
Kilvadyova said while fast download speeds are great for streaming movies or video games, or serving multiple people in one building, the upload speeds are key for anyone wanting to start a high-tech company in Vermont.
“(Fiber) is not obsolete, and can serve us well into the future,” Kilvadyova said. “It’s the gold standard.”