Broadband plan outlined to bring fiber to Weston, Derry, 14 other towns in Deerfield Valley CUD

Photo illustration by Joshua Sortino for Unsplash. Cover photo by Guillaume Meurice from Pexels.

By Cherise Madigan
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Deerfield Valley Communications Union District — of which Londonderry and now Weston are members — presented its business plan earlier this month, following months of surveys and studies into the region’s connectivity and potential. Officially formed this April, the 16-member town CUD aims to provide equitable, high-speed internet to the region.

The plan, written by the Windham Regional Commission alongside Rural Innovation Strategies and ValleyNet, outlines three potential phases for achieving that goal through DVFiber, the non-profit organization established by the CUD. In it, under-served areas like Halifax, Readsboro and Whitingham are prioritized over towns with greater population densities like Brattleboro. Other towns in the CUD are Dover, Guilford, Jamaica, Marlboro, Stamford, Stratton, Vernon, Wardsboro, Wilmington and Windham.

Londonderry, and likely Weston, fall somewhere in the middle, with the former slated to be addressed during the fourth year of the “build sequence” as outlined in the presentation of the business plan on Oct. 6.

Two phases to ‘overbuild’ for cost-effect business service

While Phase One focuses on under-served areas, and the businesses within them, Phase Two emphasizes roadways with a substantial commercial presence including Routes 100, 11, 30, 9 and 5. These areas are already served by cable companies and other internet service providers — ISPs — to a degree. But the CUD plans to “overbuild” some roadways — providing service in an area where other ISPs already operate — in the interest of providing a high-speed yet cost-effective option for businesses. Since fiber-optic cable will be set along existing utility poles, these routes appear to make sense logistically.

Unlike residential customers, the plan argues that businesses are less likely to be attracted to the bundled television or landline options offered by other ISPs. Additionally, it says the cost of business service from an individual provider like DVFiber is often competitive compared to privately owned ISPs, such as Comcast and Consolidated Communications in this region. The residential users at the ski mountains along those roadways identified in Phase Two — including Magic, Bromley and Stratton  — increases the potential customer base.

The DF-CUD plan recommends pursuing
overbuilding on a case-by-case basis.

“Not only will sections of routes near those ski mountains provide dense clusters of potential business customers,” the plan reads, “the high density of second homes and wealthier residents in the area make these areas candidates for intentional overbuilding.”

The plan recommends pursuing overbuilding on a case-by-case basis nonetheless and — once the identified roadways are addressed — it is not clear that a Phase Three will even be necessary. That will be decided by how many “partially cabled towns” — towns where high-speed internet is available in some areas, but not others — ultimately join the CUD, and how quickly the district is able to reach a “sufficient scale” to make the network financially feasible.

“The business plan clearly shows a path for the Deerfield Valley CUD to get internet service to the region,” said ValleyNet CEO Carol Monroe, who noted that adding more member towns would be beneficial to the CUD. “A network is achievable with the 15 existing towns, but adding more makes it a much stronger network.”

Interplay important between private ISPs and CUDs

While Weston officially moved to become the district’s 16th member town last week, some members of that town’s Select Board also questioned how quickly the organization would be able to achieve its goal of fiber optic internet in the region, if at all. That board’s vice chair, Jim Linville, has spearheaded the effort to look into other options for bringing high-speed internet to Weston and, shortly after voting to join the CUD, the board decided  to pursue a grant with Consolidated Communications.

That interplay between public providers like DVFiber and private ISPs continues to loom large for the CUD and others like it. The districts, which in essence are municipal telecommunications entities, was facilitated by the Vermont legislature in 2015 to expand internet access throughout Vermont at a fair price. For many of the volunteers leading the effort, those economic considerations have historically posed a challenge to achieving that goal for rural regions.

In response to the pandemic, the Vermont
Department of Public Service released
the Emergency Broadband Plan that
allows for a reverse auction where
ISPs can bid for internet expansion
projects in the state.

“For most of us, we’ve been waiting 10 or 20 years and it’s not happening, and there’s a reason for that,” said DV CUD Vice Chair Steven John. “We don’t provide, in our rural towns, a sufficient margin of profit to make the investment worthwhile for the private sector.”

The Covid-19 pandemic may change that, however, and the business plan’s authors addressed the fact that increased demand for high-speed internet during the pandemic has attracted more interest from privately owned ISPs in areas where access is lacking.

In May — in response to the pandemic — the Vermont Department of Public Service released the Emergency Broadband Plan that allows for a reverse auction (in which the lowest bidder wins) where ISPs can bid for internet expansion projects in the state. But that measure may also make the investment more attractive for some ISPs, which could limit the number of customers for CUDs and not ensure equitable rate for customers. That auction is slated to take place at the end of October and could continue for three to four weeks before the outcome is known.

If the winner of the auction is amenable to partnering with the CUD, Monroe said, DVFiber will be able to move forward with the business plan. If the winner elects to build fiber in the region but does not partner with the CUD — an outcome considered unlikely by the business plan’s authors — then the CUD would either need to grow geographically to reach sufficient scale or find additional financing options to continue their work. In that case, the Deerfield Valley group could merge with a neighboring counterpart like the Southern Vermont CUD to cut costs and once again reach a critical mass of customers.

Pole survey would follow auction

Following the auction, the CUD hopes to begin its pole study for the region — in which existing telephone poles are assessed and logged — before pursuing permitting, design and engineering for the infrastructure next spring.

Construction is slated to begin in fall 2021, with the first customers being hooked up to the system by spring or summer 2022. Although the project requires more than $12 million, the CUD is not funded by towns or taxpayers and will instead utilize grant money as well as subordinated debt.

Construction is slated to begin in
fall 2021, with the first customers
being hooked up to the system
by spring or summer 2022.

While the timeline may be long — and challenges remain — the volunteers and organizations leading the effort for public, high-speed internet assert that their work has the potential to “ensure quality service … establish local control, and bring world-class internet to even the most remote locations in the region.”

“Some readers of this business plan, especially the people who live in DVCUD member towns, may become disheartened when they read the likely time it will take to bring broadband to their homes and businesses,” the document reads. “But for the first time, the region has a path to serving everyone when there was none before.”

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Filed Under: Business & Personal FinanceFeaturedLatest NewsLondonderryWeston

About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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  1. John G says:

    About 10 years ago I started telecommuting from my home in Chester to NYC. I was limping by on a 1MB DSL line that ran at about half that speed. It was about half a mile to a cable connection they were running to another house nearby. They estimated $14K. I declined. VTel came to the rescue a couple of years later and I have never been happier.

  2. Toby Fitch says:

    Last April when the $3K/household grants were announced, I requested from Comcast an estimate (needed for the State Survey) to connect my house at the end of a 3.5 mile road with approximately 25 homes, to broadband. The Survey needed to be returned within a specific time frame to be eligible for the grants, during which Comcast could not get the “estimate” to me. The estimate from Comcast arrived weeks after the deadline to the tune of $200,000 to get wired broadband to my home… We. Will. NEVER. EVER. Have. Broadband. (except by hyper-expensive-metered satellite, as we have no cell service as well)

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