This story by John Lippman was first published by the Valley News on June 28.
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Roused by a 30-piece band swelling the room with marching tunes, a parade of town leaders, civic-minded celebrants and a U.S. senator marked what was described as a historic moment in connecting the Upper Valley with the wider world: plugging the “golden patch cord” into a telecommunications hub that will bring high-speed internet service to 3,500 addresses in Hartford.
“We’ve all waited patiently for this day,” trumpeted ECFiber Chairman F. X. Flinn, to whoops and applause from more than 200 people packed into the VFW Hall on Tuesday, hailing ECFiber’s fiber-optic network that has been nearly two decades in the making as “world-class broadband right here in the Brooklyn of Vermont, White River Junction.”
The event, which was moved from the parking lot where it was to take place on a stage decked out in bunting to inside the VFW Hall due to the threat of rain, was staged to celebrate the near completion — there still remain some miles of fiber-optic lines to string in sections of Hartford — represented by “lighting” the last hub in the 23-town consortium that’s been working since 2007 to bring internet service to rural Vermonters.
ECFiber’s story has been through many chapters during its history: the initial 500 investors who kicked in $7.5 million in seed capital; nearly stopping dead in its tracks when a plan to raise financing was torpedoed in the 2007-2009 recession; aligning with ValleyNet; being turned down for federal grant funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009; and successively turning to the municipal bond markets to tap $64 million in financing.
Finally, earlier this year, after building 1,800 miles of fiber-optic network and reaching 24,000 homes, ECFiber entered into an operating agreement with GWI, a Maine telecommunications operator. Eight more Upper Valley towns on top of the current 23 have voted to join ECFiber, potentially adding thousands more subscribers to its current 8,000-strong residential customer base.
A carousel of people who have been involved with ECFiber took turns at the podium sharing their memories over the years: Chuck Wooster, of Hartford; Ken Parker, of Hartford; Dan Childs, of Brookfield; Dave Brown, of Woodstock; Loredo Sola, of Pomfret; Carole Monroe, of Dublin, New Hampshire; Irv Thomae, of Norwich; Jerry Ward, of Randolph; and Vermont state Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford.
One of the most critical people involved in ECFiber and ValleyNet, Stan Williams, of Norwich, was not present at the event but received numerous shout-outs from the participants, as did Burlington telecom consultant Tim Nulty and the late Montpelier attorney J. Paul Giuliani, who was credited with helping to craft legislation that created the telecommunications union district that made the ECFiber model possible.
But the star speaker was U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who lauded ECFiber for undertaking a project that telephone and cable companies — the usual providers of telecommunications services — spurned because there was not enough money in it for them, he said.
“If we in rural Vermont were going to depend on the big telecommunication companies to wire our homes and get us internet, we’d be waiting until our grandchildren had grandchildren,” said Welch, a Norwich resident. “It wasn’t going to happen.”
Welch brought good news to the room: Christine Hallquist, executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, has just returned from Washington where she met with “her pal” President Joe Biden and “twisted his arm” to secure another $229 million for the state under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program to expand broadband in the state.
“We are now on the threshold of having high-speed internet that goes to every home, barn and business in the state,” Welch declared.
For the most part, ECFiber has built out its fiber-optic networks by selling municipal bonds to raise financing and not through government grants, although that is beginning to change, Flinn said.
In order to extend the network to eight more Vermont towns — Bradford, Fairlee, West Fairlee, Newbury, Corinth, Topsham, Washington, and Windsor — ECFiber applied for and was approved to receive $2.8 million in “pre-construction” grants from the Vermont Community Broadband Fund, which the state funded with money it received under the Covid-19-era American Rescue Plan Act.
Flinn said the grant will be used for design work of fiber-optic networks in Bradford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Newbury.
In addition, Flinn said, ECFiber is working on the “final paperwork” in applying to the Vermont Community Broadband Fund for $13 million in “construction grants” to build the fiber optics network, which “we hope will be approved in August.”
Those government program funds still will not be enough, however, and Flinn said he expects ECFiber will be seeking to raise about another $15 million from the bond market in order to meet the estimated total cost of $30 million to build out the fiber-optic network to the eight additional towns, which joined the East Central Vermont Telecommunications in 2021.
At the end of the day, Flinn said, he expects about 20% of ECFiber’s funding will be “grant-funded.”
Flinn described that as an “economic imbalance” because most telecommunications districts are 50% financed by bonds and 50% funded by government money. But that, too, will change, he predicted.
“We’ll pay off those bonds over the course of a generation and be on an equal footing,” Flinn said. “It will just take a while to get there.”