Two groups of communities in northwest Vermont are close to reaching an agreement with Google Fiber to bring lightning-fast service to some of the state’s most underserved areas.
“I live in one of those communities, so I totally understand the frustrations over many years of only having poor or no connectivity,” said Sean Kio of Enosburgh, executive director of Northwest FiberworX (formerly the Northwest Communications Union District), which represents about 29,000 addresses.
Communications union districts are towns that have banded together to build communication infrastructure.
Two of Vermont’s newest CUDs, Northwest FiberworX (with 21 member communities) and Lamoille FiberNet (with 10 member communities), joined forces last year to build, own and maintain an open-access fiber network that can host multiple internet service providers — a first for the state.
“We are doing something that’s very different from any of the other communications union districts,” said Val Davis of Johnson, executive director of Lamoille FiberNet, which covers about 14,100 addresses. “We are building an open access network and we will own the network when it’s done.”
According to the state, 71,000 addresses don’t have access to the federal definition of broadband, which is a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload of 3 mbps — and that’s just basic broadband. They may have DSL or maybe even dial-up.
Vermont is the first state in the nation to allow municipalities to band together as CUDs to build fiber optic service.
“This is where Vermont’s ahead of the game,” said Rob Fish, deputy director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, established by Act 71 in 2021. “By aggregating towns together in these communication districts, it made sense for these big providers — that weren’t interested in Vermont previously — to talk to us.”
Together, the Northwest and Lamoille CUDs represent just under 43,000 addresses.
Google heard about the partnership and approached the state in September, Davis said. They have been in discussions since.
If all goes well, Google could become the network’s first retail internet service provider, Fish said. “So you’d be talking about good rates, incredibly fast speed, and it would be a publicly owned network where Google could be just one of several providers that are on the network.”
Google Fiber is a high-speed broadband internet service that uses fiber-optic cables to deliver speeds of up to two gigabits to homes and businesses. Fiber-optic cables transmit information using light, allowing for much faster speeds than traditional cable, DSL or dial-up connections. Google Fiber currently serves 20 metro areas across the U.S.
“We hope this project will turn out to be an example for many other communities who need fast, reliable internet,” said David Finn, director of corporate development at Google Fiber, in a March 9 press release.
Kio, who formerly worked at Burlington Telecom, said the Northwest and Lamoille CUDs have covered a lot of ground in the past few months and are “hopefully coming to a close in terms of our negotiations here over the next couple of weeks.”
The process involves a lot of back and forth, but Davis said he hopes to have an agreement signed with Google by the end of June.
If all goes as planned, construction could begin late this year, and about 42,900 households could start seeing new service on a rolling basis within the next 36 months.
Regulated by state law, the CUDs have already purchased their first batches of fiber — 150 miles for Lamoille FiberNet and 130 miles for Northwest FiberworX — and issued separate requests for proposals for design, construction and project management.
At least five or six companies have expressed interest, Davis said, and the CUDs expect to choose a vendor by June 9.
“We are dancing as fast as we can,” he said. “But this is not a small undertaking. The only thing that we’ve had in the past that we can compare this to is the electrification of the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, when they were building the grid. It’s a huge undertaking and it’s gonna get done, but it’s going to take some time.”
“We saw from the very beginning that this is an opportunity for us to do something kind of remarkable,” said Kio. “If we’re successful — and we hope and believe that we’re going to be — this very well has the potential to be a game-changer for rural broadband all over and can likely serve as a model for other parts of the country as well.”
This story was updated with the correct definition of broadband and the correct spelling of Enosburgh.
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