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ECFiber aims to roll out in Bradford, Corinth, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Windsor in 2021

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 10/24/2020 10:04:14 PM
Modified: 10/24/2020 10:04:12 PM

BRADFORD, Vt. — ECFiber, the East Central Vermont consortium that provides high-speed internet and phone service in several Upper Valley communities, said it plans to move ahead with providing fiber-optic-to-the-home broadband network to eight additional towns beyond its original members beginning next year.

The move is good news for residents of Bradford, Corinth, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Windsor, who initially thought they’d have to wait until ECFiber finished building its network in Hartford, the last town in the original group yet to receive widespread ECFiber service.

Instead, ECFiber said it expects to built 75 miles of broadband network in Hartford, mostly in the Jericho district, and then to begin building in the new towns in 2021.

ECFiber, which began offering service in 2011, added eight new Upper Valley towns to its consortium earlier this year, although it had provided no timeline as to when it would be offering service. But the coronavirus pandemic has made plain the need for high-speed internet service in rural communities, ECFiber officials said.

“COVID has definitely heightened people’s awareness how essential it is to have good internet service for working from home and studying from home,” said Chris Recchia, managing director of ValleyNet, the nonprofit entity that operates ECFiber. “So demand has been through the roof. We’ve had a record number of subscribers and installs this year and a lot of it has been due to COVID.”

In addition, ECFiber said it is in discussions with utility Washington Electric Cooperative about extending high-speed internet service to the towns of Newbury, Topsham and Washington.

To finance the expansion, ECFiber said it expects to return to the municipal bond market in December to raise an additional $11 million. ECFiber already has tapped the bond market several times and has about $41 million in debt on the books, which would increase to more than $52 million after the next round.

F.X. Flinn, chair of ECFiber, said it will move ahead with expanding into the new towns even though its plan to provide internet service in some of its original member towns, such as Hartford and downtown Woodstock — where all utilities are underground — is not yet complete.

“We had people reaching out to us and then we reached out to the selectboards of the new towns,” Flinn said. “We thought we could sensibly expand into them” without undercutting the timeline to complete work in original member towns.

Hartford is the only original member town where ECFiber has not yet activated service, although it is currently building out its network around the town’s Jericho district and is scheduled to begin building in Quechee in 2021, according to its service map.

Recchia said the priority in Hartford is to build first in “unserved and underserved” areas of Hartford before tackling more densely populated parts of the town such as White River Junction, which already is served by Comcast.

ECFiber said in its 2021 budget proposal released earlier this month that the “complexity” of building in Hartford “is such that it cannot be completed in 2021.” Building issues aside, however, ECFiber also noted that “our bond underwriters have expressed concern with the uncertainty of the take rate in direct competition with Comcast’s Xfinity product,” signaling the challenge ECFiber might face in trying to pull customers away from the cable giant. (“Take rate” refers to the percentage of addresses that sign up for ECFiber where it is available.)

“That’s why we are focusing on the unserved and underserved areas first,” Recchia said. “We’ve had good experience in the take rate in those areas. We’re working from the outside to the center. White River Junction will probably be the last.”

Although downtown Bradford has high-speed internet service, there are still many parts of the community that rely on DSL service and ECFiber would greatly improve the ability of residents to do routine tasks online.

Barbara Kulzyck, who lives on Hackett Hill Road about 3 miles from downtown Bradford, described her DSL line as “very slow” and a problem when both she and her 16-year-old niece, a junior in high school, are online at the same time.

Kulzyck said the other night she was trying to participate in a Zoom meeting with the town’s conservation commission while her niece was trying to do her schoolwork. But both couldn’t be on at the same time.

“I had to ask her to get off until the meeting was over,” Kulzyck said, predicting ECFiber “would make a huge difference” in the quality of internet service.

“The only high-speed around here is when somebody drives downhill without their brakes,” she quipped.

ECFiber said it added nearly 1,200 new subscribers in the year ended Sept. 30 and now serves 5,125 locations in 22 towns over 1,180 miles of network.

With the addition of the eight new municipalities, ECFiber said its fully built network will be available to about 31,500 customers over 2,000 miles of road.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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