Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine It’s the most rural area of the state and when it comes to high-speed Internet, the Northeast Kingdom is also the most underserved area of the state.
So, in April residents decided to take matters into their collective hands and formed Northeast Kingdom Community Broadband – what is now a 32-town communications union district or CUD.
Evan Carlson, chairman of NEK Community Broadband, said 49 percent of the addresses in the three-county region have Internet access below 25 megabytes per second – a far cry from what’s considered high-speed Internet or broadband.
“That has been the biggest kind of barrier to being able to stay connected for a lot of these households during the pandemic,” Carlson said. “It was an issue before, but this has really put a new spotlight on a deficiency in our rural infrastructure.”
He said the goal is to offer high-speed Internet to more than 25,000 E911 addresses (commercial and residential) in the three counties that make up the Northeast Kingdom.
He said beyond the village centers that’s where the problem exists.
“As soon as you get into the back roads the service drops off almost altogether,” said Carlson, who resides in Sutton in Caledonia County.
The Northeastern Vermont Development Association helped out with federal and state grants to get NEK Broadband up and running. But to build out the fiber network will take time and a lot more money.
Grant money also allowed NEK Broadband to hire Christine Hallquist as district administrator.
Hallquist is the former CEO of Vermont Electric Co-op.
The initial feasibility study done this year put the cost to serve the first 27 towns that joined the CUD at $75 million, Carlson said.
“In order for us to build that infrastructure that we will then own is probably going to be a very incremental process unless the federal government is going to release a huge omnibus broadband infrastructure bill,” Carlson said.
The piecemeal approach will require taking advantage of federal and state grants and other funding sources as it becomes available, he said.
With some CARES funding, Carlson said NEK Broadband partnered with Kingdom Fiber, a local ISP, to deploy additional fiber in the Route 14 corridor to connect 100 previously unserved addresses.
Carlson said the budget for next year includes a $4 million VEDA loan to begin the Phase I fiber buildout. The exact location of the initial buildout hasn’t been determined, he said.
NEK Broadband would build out the fiber network and then lease the network to Internet service providers. Interested ISPs would submit RFPs to provide service. Carlson said ISPs would have to meet certain criteria, including level of service and affordability.
When it comes to the level of service and affordability, the goal is “to provide every E911 business and residential address in northeastern Vermont with access to a minimum speed of 100 Mbps, symmetrical at an affordable price.”
Carlson said with a fiber network the sky is the limit with speeds up to a gigabyte depending on how much someone is willing to pay.
He also said fiber is the preferred carrier because it can be used for improving cellular service, improve emergency services and enhance electric grid resiliency.
He said a survey of residents indicated most would be willing to pay between $70 for 500 MBps and $100 a month for a GBps.
There are several phone and cable companies that already provide Internet service: Charter Spectrum, Comcast, Consolidated Communications and VTel. Carlson said there’s also HughsNet and Viasat, satellite ISPs.
However, he said the for-profit ISPs have little interest in extending their service into sparsely populated areas.
“With a municipal entity like a CUD our primary mission is not high margins and big salaries, it’s focused on getting people connected, to be able to at the end of the day impact their rural economy in a positive way,” he said
Carlson said there are now nine CUDs in the state representing 152 towns which is more than half the towns in the state.
Bruce Edwards is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.