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ECFiber Hoping for a Major Expansion in the Next 12 Months

Since ECFiber’s first fund-raising effort ended two years ago, it has hooked up about 300 subscribers in Barnard, Bethel, Royalton and Pomfret. But in 2013, the organization hopes to triple that number.

While 300 customers might not seem like a lot, especially since ECFiber raised $1.8 million in 2012 — and $3 million total since its inception — ECFiber board members claim that once more pole licenses come in and the Orange County Fiber Connector is complete, they’ll be able to hook up Web users in various towns around the Upper Valley.

ECFiber has received most of its funding through 300 investors. Investors are asked to contribute at least $2,500 with the agreement that ECFiber will pay them back over a 15-year loan as they earn interest.

However, just because someone is an investor doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be connected to the fiber network. It’s just a coincidence that there are 300 subscribers and 300 investors, said Irv Thomae, the newly appointed chairman to the ECFiber governing board and the Norwich delegate.

Thomae was hoping to start connecting Norwich residents by the end of the year, but he said he was “misinformed” about the length of time it would take to receive pole licenses — a process that can take up to six months.

“There’s a lot of waiting,” Thomae said. “We raised a lot of money this year, and I think it’s possible that we all underestimated the sheer volume of paperwork we would have to process to get this moving.”

The majority of pole licenses for Norwich should be completed by the last week of February, Thomae said, so Norwich customers should begin seeing hook ups sometime in the spring.

Part of ECFiber’s current plan also relies on the construction of the Orange County Fiber Connector, which is being overseen by the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

The connector is meant to be about 40 miles of backbone for broadband Internet and will extend along routes 110, 113 and 132 through Chelsea, Vershire, West Fairlee, Thetford, Strafford and Sharon. The VTA committed up to $800,000 to build the project.

ValleyNet, which ECFiber hired to operate the fiber network, has already agreed to lease fiber strands along the entire route.

Since ECFiber plans to lease the line, it can’t start construction until the connector is completed, said Tim Nulty, CEO of ValleyNet, which was hired by ECFiber to design, build and operate the project.

The first two-mile section of the Orange County Fiber Connector was hung in November, said Caro Thompson, broadband outreach coordinator for the VTA. That line starts at the intersection of East Randolph Road and Route 110 and extends into Chelsea.

The next section, which is currently in progress, starts at the intersection of Route 110 and Route 113 and travels along Route 113 to Richardson Road in Vershire.

The completion of the seven-mile section of the line is dependent on winter weather, Thompson said, but that section is scheduled to be complete by the end of January.

As for a final completion date, Thompson said the VTA can’t estimate that yet.

While some towns wait for pole licenses to come in, other towns, like Woodstock, are just beginning their fund-raising campaign.

Dave Brown, Woodstock’s delegate on the governing board, made an agreement in October with the Norman Williams Public Library to house a fiber hub in the building. In return, ECFiber would offer the library a fiber-optic connection.

To secure the hub, Brown started a $400,000 fund-raising campaign that ended on Dec. 3. The number is so large because all utilities in the main business district of Woodstock are housed underground, making fiber connections more expensive and time consuming.

The money would have also covered the cost to run fiber-optic cable from Barnard to Woodstock, Brown said.

But the campaign fell short and only raised $165,000.

So Brown came up with a backup plan. He had hoped to connect the business district of Woodstock first because he thought places like the library and local businesses such as his own software development company, could benefit from fiber. But because of the expense of putting lines underground, ECFiber will use the $165,000 it raised to connect six miles worth of residential customers that can be served from overhead wires.

“People meet me on the street and say, ‘I’m so disappointed,’” Brown said. “Don’t be disappointed, we have $165,000. That’s fantastic.”

Brown is trying to decide which six miles in Woodstock to tackle first. Once he establishes a route, pole licenses will be submitted.

“With luck, we’ll have our first subscribers in the summer,” Brown said. “That’s as good as my crystal ball gets.”

As for the business district, ECFiber will be back, Brown said, he’s just not sure when, and he’s confident that the library will have access to service as promised. As for the hub, he said it’s too soon to know if ECFiber would try to use the library as a hub in the future once more fund raising has been completed, or if he’ll look for an alternative.

Right now, his focus is getting six miles worth of residents connected.

“The thing I haven’t been able to do since 2008 is say, ‘We have ECFiber in Woodstock,’ ” Brown said. “I can say that now, or I will be able to say that.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.