It's called the East Central Vermont Community (ECVC) Fiber Network and, although it is facing tough odds, the group believes it can succeed where big cash-laden carriers have failed to deliver the service in the 23-town region.
The residents in the thinly populated area where dairy cows outnumbered humans until recently are scraping together $1 million to launch their network as they watch enviously the $116 million award of federal stimulus funds given recently to one carrier. In addition, the ECVC residents still have to deal with a bankrupt FairPoint Communications, which continues to provide telecom services throughout much of the state. Technology is an important issue, too -- whether fiber, or DSL or satellite or LTE or a mix of those technologies is the best way to provide broadband service to rural areas.
"We're looking to build a profitable pilot," said Tim Nulty, manager of the ECVC project, in an interview. "We want to build it and show people that fiber-to-the-home will work, that it can be done. I'm pretty confident it will work." If the pilot demonstrates financial feasibility, the plan is to use a successful pilot rollout to produce funding to string 1550 miles of cable to cover the 700 square-mile region. About 55,000 citizens and 22,000 premises are in the sparsely populated region.
The pilot plan calls for fiber to be strung on telephone poles over a 30-mile stretch passing 400 to 450 premises. Nulty says 75% of the residents in the entire region "have nothing except dial up" or often-unreliable satellite service. The project has been supported in town meetings held throughout the region, giving the project unusual and determined community support. A headquarters has been established in Royalton and some initial funding has been raised.
Earlier, in 2008, the ECVC project seemed well on the way to success with a financing plan nearly completed, but the Wall Street and economic meltdown that autumn wrecked the ECVC plan, too. Then the group sought federal stimulus funding, but, in spite of strong support from the state's federal lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $116 million to the Vermont Telephone Company (VTel). While VTel has generally received high marks for its service, Nulty questions awarding $81 million of the $116 federal funding for VTel's Wireless Open World (WOW).
Nulty, a longtime proponent of fiber says wireless, even LTE wireless, can't deliver broadband as robust as fiber. "Fiber is the cheapest way to get universal coverage," said Nulty, who added that VTel is using rural Vermont as a "guinea pig" for an unproven technology for rural use. Nulty, a former venture capitalist and former chief economist for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, believes the various Vermont broadband plans will serve as a test bed for the country's rural regions and he predicts fiber will eventually be proven to be the hands-down winner.
As for VTel, the company has said its Wireless Open World network will be a job creator and serve as a platform for rural economic growth in the state for years. The Vermont telecom scene has been complicated by the bankruptcy of FairPoint, which took over much of the telecom business in Vermont -- and also in New Hampshire and Maine-from Verizon Communications. Based in North Carolina, FairPoint is reorganizing and is working to improve its service in the three northern New England states.