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The East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network (ECFiber) continues to grow, tripling in size in just the past year. We reported last summer that the community owned network had raised the funding for an expansion. Fundraising and reach surpassed the original expansion plan and the network now boasts 180 miles.
The Valley News recently reported that:
Next year, ECFiber plans to focus on connecting customers in unserved parts of Royalton, Strafford, Norwich, Tunbridge and Sharon.
ECFiber is seeking additional investment during this quarter to finance the work next year, and has set a goal of having more than 1,000 customers connected by the end of 2014.
ECFiber seeks funding by selling tax-exempt promissory notes to local investors. There are 23 member towns in the ECFiber consortium, including Montpelier. For detailed maps of service area and planned expansions, check out the ECFiber's Where Are We Working page.
The article goes on to note that Tim Nulty is planning to retire from his position as CEO of ValleyNet, the nonprofit behind ECFiber. Nulty will take on the role of board Chairman. Leslie Nulty will also shift from project coordinator and will continue as a ValleyNet board member.
Leslie visited with Chris in the Broadband Bits podcast episode #9. She shared ECFiber's history and the two discussed the community owned network model that is ECFiber.
Phase 1, with construction under way (see photo) and scheduled to go live in early August, brings an ultra-high-speed fiber loop from the ECFiber central office near I89 Exit 3, along VT Routes 107 and 12, to the center of Barnard. ECFiber expects to begin connecting businesses and residents who live on this route in early August and will provide detailed subscriber information closer to that date.ECFiber has 23 member towns, but Barnard could be the most enthusiastic. This is as grassroots as it gets:
At its June meeting, the ECFiber Governing Board authorized an initiative to extend service to the rest of Barnard town. This requires a second round of capital-raising through a similar "friends and families" offering directed specifically to residents, businesses, and others who wish to support the deployment of universal broadband in Barnard. Loredo Sola, ECF Governing Board Chair commented, "When we first took our plan to Barnard, we were inundated with residents offering to pay the entire cost of extending the Phase 1 trunk to their homes. This enthusiastic response inspired us to authorize a Barnard-only fund drive." ECFiber will be organizing informational meetings for Barnard residents and businesses to explain the details of the plan. When sufficient funds have been committed to build out the entire town, the Barnard Local Fund will close, and construction of Phase 2 can begin.Barnard had 94% of the community presubscribe! The success of ECFiber comes without any support of the state, which has continued to pretend wireless connections and out-of-state corporations will provide the networks necessary for the economic development needed by communities. Valley News took note of the story and expanded on it:
Without other funding streams, it could take seven to 10 years to build out to all 23 towns, Nulty said, but the company is committed to seeing it happen.
Lake County could not reach agreement on a permanent contract with National Public Broadband, its consultant firm for nearly two years. The two sides battled for nearly two months and couldn’t solve issues based on bonus payments and the ability for the county to fire NPB without cause and without penalty. The negotiations had bogged down work on the actual project, Commissioner Paul Bergman said, and the board wanted a fresh start.Additionally, due to the state of financial markets, the County is planning to self-fund the $3.5 million local obligation required to access to the broadband stimulus award. Lake County hoped to bond for the matching funds but the current interest rates make that an fiscally unwise approach. While this does not change the project, it will change the perception of the project and open it to increased attacks from those who don't want the County to build a network (despite the fact that private providers have no interest in providing anything other than slow DSL and cable networks). The County had long maintained that no public money would be used. However, most people will likely not care as long as the project keeps its promise to deliver fast, reliable, and affordable broadband to the community.
Like the debate over whether the meetings being held to draw up the rollout plans for the county should be public or private, NPB needs to better apply the rules of working within the expectations of open government. We demand transparency and a full accounting of tax dollars. It’s fair to wonder, as some board members did last week, just what NPB would withhold from the board if things don’t go swimmingly with the Lake County plan.
Business Plans of Burlington Telecom and ECFiber Numerous loose allegations have recently appeared in the press regarding the business plans of Burlington Telecom and ECFiber. DPS Commissioner David O’Brien and John Briggs of the Burlington Free Press are examples but others have also chimed in. These statements are inaccurate, misinformed and unfounded. Since they affect organizations that are important to thousands of Vermonters they need to be corrected. BT’s business plan was based on those of similar Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks already running and successful at the time…including Reedsburg, WI; Bristol, VA, Kutztown, PA; Dalton, GA and Winona, Minn. Experts from these projects were consulted in developing BT’s plan. Several came to Burlington to assist with and vet BT’s planning and BT staff visited them to in turn. All of these networks were built in towns, which like Burlington, had established broadband incumbents already in place so their experience was highly relevant. By their fifth year all these networks had achieved penetration rates over 55% and most over 65%. A study by survey firm RVA, in 2007 and updated in 2009 identified 57 municipal FTTH networks operating in the USA and calculated that the average penetration, including new start-ups, was 54%. BT’s business plan was constructed so that it would become profitable with 4800 - 5000 customers of the 19,500 potential—a more conservative take rate than comparable networks had actually achieved in practice. This provided BT with a substantial “safety cushion”. All capital-intensive investments-- power stations, airports, steel mills--take some time to become profitable. This is also true of telecoms.
In September 2009, BT notified the Vermont Public Service Board that it had used $17 million in city funds in violation of its state license. State officials have been mum about the details of their investigation, and an FBI spokesman, through an assistant, would not confirm or deny a Burlington Free Press report that that agency had stepped in.
The pilot project will provide a solid foundation for the capital lease used to build out the rest of the network, providing 100% coverage in 23 towns in East Central Vermont. While the intent of the project is to prove that the larger project is viable, according to Nulty, “it will be able to stand on its own if we don’t raise another dime of capital.”The project is expected to cost some $80 million in total to cover the 23 participating towns. ECFiber has already obtained the necessary permissions from the State to offer video and telecommunications services. The Pilot Project targets the town of Bethel, where the central hub for the entire network is located. ECFiber is one of many groups that are using a nonprofit ownership model to build the network. The towns work together to create a nonprofit that will finance, own, and operate the network to ensure community needs are put before profits -- now and in the future. Update: The pilot project will only offer broadband and phone services due to the high fixed cost of trying to offer video services for such a small population.
It’s important to understand that while it costs a lot of money to create a broadband network, over a five-to-ten-year period, it costs even more to operate that network than to build it. Say it costs $1 million to build a wireless network. During the municipal wireless heyday, it was estimated to cost 20% of buildout expense to operate the network annually – to pay for customer service, maintenance, upgrades, etc. That’s $200,000 a year.This is a great intro article for those who may not be used to thinking about the economics or business plans networks need. For the rest of us, it is a strong reminder of how many networks start (and a good path for those who want to create a network):
Santa Monica, California, had a legacy PBX phone system and slow connection circuits from incumbents. The city pooled money it was already paying for voice and data services, using this capital to build a fiber network and implement new communication technology. City CIO Jory Wolf states, “By switching to fiber we realized a $500,000 savings in data circuits and $250,000 savings in voice circuits, all of which stayed in our fund. Ongoing savings enabled us to provide our police with video streaming in their vehicles. We have excess bandwidth, so we provide (a) large number of sites with free wireless access.” Wolf said that the city is also selling companies fiber lines that haven't yet been turned on. “Our network budget is self-sustaining,” he said, “and I have $2.5 million in capital.”I remember Tim Nulty saying that Burlington Telecom started the same way. They figured out how much they were paying each month for telecom as a city.
- Universal - everyone should have access at affordable rates
- Open Access - it must encourage competition, not stifle it
- Future Proof - the technology must be built to last and meet needs currently unforeseen
- Financial self sufficiency - this can be done and the political culture suggests it must be done