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ECFiber Falls Short Of Connectivity Goal



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 04, 2018

South Woodstock — The community-owned utility that pledged to bring universal internet connectivity to residents of six Upper Valley towns by the end of 2017 has made significant progress, but fallen a bit short of its goal, according to an executive.

Carole Monroe, who took the reins as ECFiber’s chief executive officer two years ago, gave a progress report on the company’s ambitions while announcing its first-ever internet cafe at the South Woodstock General Store.

In July, Pittsfield became the first — and so far, the only — of the six towns where 100 percent of the residents successfully have been given access to ECFiber’s network, which is expanding throughout the company’s 24 member towns.

Of the six communities that were slated to be fully wired last year, West Windsor, Pomfret, Barnard and Strafford all have internet access for more than 90 percent of their residents, while the sixth — Thetford — has run into logistical issues that limited gains to 277 customers along 28 miles of road.

“I know they’re making quite an effort, even going underground for customers with underground phone lines,” Strafford Selectboard member John Freitag said of the activity he’s seen in that community. “They’re really trying to do it.”

Monroe said she expects the installation of another 22 miles of wiring by the end of June will bring Thetford close to its 100-percent target. Most of the remaining service gap is in East Thetford and the Post Mills area.

Monroe said the delays in Thetford were because it took FairPoint and Green Mountain Power — the companies that own the utility poles — too long to prepare those poles for use by ECFiber.

“We got a license on Feb. 14, of this year, for a pole application that we filed on Jan. 2 of last year,” Monroe said. “They should have been done in the late June to July time period.”

Every time ECFiber moves into a new area, it applies for the existing utility hookups to be reconfigured to make way.

Under Vermont Public Utility Commission regulations, the pole owners are required to do the job, and the applicant is required to pay for it, including pole replacement in cases in which a pole is too small or brittle with age to handle the addition. Roughly two dozen poles in Thetford had to be replaced, at a cost of about $1,000 each, according to Monroe.

She said that, after a round of talks between the companies, she expects the problem largely will be resolved this year.

“I do think they’re making progress, and it’s tough for them,” Monroe said, of GMP and FairPoint. “We’re asking for a lot. We’re asking for 6,000 poles a year.”

The company plans to install 250 miles of cable each year for the next several years, and has announced that, in 2018, it will target six more Vermont towns for universal connectivity: Braintree, Brookfield, Granville, Hancock, Rochester and Stockbridge.

The company also has begun extending its network along Route 106 form the West Windsor and Reading border to the South Woodstock General Store, which will host an ECFiber celebratory event at 3 p.m. on Monday.

“This coming year, we’ll be doing at least 30 miles in Woodstock,” representing about a third of the total population of the town, according to Monroe.

State Rep. Charlie Kimbell, D-Woodstock, who also has been active in the Woodstock Economic Development Commission, will speak at the Monday event about the benefits of connectivity.

“It’s the modern equivalent of the rural electrification of the 1920s,” he said. “It’s one of the pillars of economic development in the state.”

He said that, while working with the commission, he learned firsthand how difficult it can be to make the finances work on a local level.

“We were looking at how many people would have to sign up to do that as a town, and you’d have to steal those customers from their existing providers in order to get to a high enough take rate,” he said. “That was a problem for us. We had to say, as an Economic Development Commission, we can’t do that.”

ECFiber has struggled at times to make ends meet, said Dave Brown, a Woodstock resident who has been working with the company for the past 11 years.

“We used to be looking in the seat cushions for more change just to buy a little more fiber,” Brown said.

The utility, which had 1,600 customers a year ago, recently passed the 2,500 mark, and expects to reach about 4,100 by the end of 2018. Monroe said the company has been cash flow positive since 2015.

“With 2,500 customers, we don’t have to scrape like we did. Now we go and buy six months’ worth of fiber just because we can,” Brown said.

Though it began on a shoestring budget with modest funding from local investors, ECFiber staved off cash-flow concerns when it began attracting money from out of the area.

In 2016, the company began a $40 million campaign, and in the first two years, successfully attracted $23.5 million in revenue bonds. Brown said the investments help to demonstrate the fundamental soundness of ECFiber’s business model, and said he had little doubt the $40 million target would be reached.

Brown first pitched the idea of turning the general store into an internet cafe, which he said has the potential to boost sales for the company, and provide both internet and cellphone access for residents who currently have neither.

Since the beginning of a trial period about a month ago, the store’s customers have been given free use of a public wifi hookup, and encouraged to spend hours working on their phones or laptops.

The store pays about $78 monthly for the hookup, which includes a secure connection for its private use.

Brown said it seems to be going well.

“I talked to somebody yesterday whose wife likes to take a lot of pictures, but she can’t upload them unless she goes to the South Woodstock General Store,” he said. “While there she buys some stuff to go home, eats a muffin or drinks coffee while she’s there. Now they go as a family.”

Brown and Monroe both said ECFiber plans to expand the internet cafe model to other general stores within the company’s footprint.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.