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Broadband rollout inches forward as fiber cable is delivered to Vermont

A person wearing a hat leans up against large wooden spools against a blue sky
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Joshua Bohar, an engineer with Great Works Internet, inspects a reel of fiber optic cable that was delivered to the Deerfield Valley recently. Bohar is working with the local communication union district to develop a plan to connect almost 8,000 underserved homes among 24 towns.

Vermonters in the most rural corners of the state have been waiting a long time for high-speed internet service.

And after a flood of federal COVID money, plus a lot of work by volunteers across the state, it might finally be happening.

More from VPR: Reporter debrief: How Vermont is spending $350 million in COVID relief to expand broadband

On a recent chilly morning, members of the group Deerfield Valley Fibermet to unload eight reels of high-speed fiber optic cable.

The reels weigh almost 2,000 pounds each. A front loader lifted each one off of a flat bed truck and slowly crept across the yard while the crew figured out the best way to store them.

Fiber cable is in short supply across the United States.

The federal government pumped billions of dollars into both COVID aid and the infrastructure bill to support broadband buildout, and so communities across the country are now scrambling for cable and equipment.

“It’s the first concrete step of really having material that you can see, hold and touch."
Steven John, Deerfield Valley Fiber

Late last year a group got together in Vermont to buy about 2,000 miles of cable. The stuff being unloaded here in the Deerfield Valley is part of that purchase.

Deerfield Valley Fiber chairman Steven John lives in Marlboro, and he’s been working for almost 10 years to figure out a way to improve broadband service in the region.

John says seeing these reels of fiber lined up in this field makes him think that it might finally happen.

“It’s the first concrete step of really having material that you can see, hold and touch,” John said.

Deerfield Valley Fiber is a communication union district, or CUD. It's a nonprofit organization made up of towns that work together to build out networks in rural areas that have been passed over by for-profit companies.

The group has 24 southern Vermont towns in it. John says volunteers have been working hundreds of hours to get to this point, learning as they go, making a mistake here and there, and slowly inching the plan forward.

“You see nothing’s really figured out. We’re not like following a road map,” John said. “You know, we’re not following like some plan that says, ‘This is what you do next. This is what you do next.’ We have some idea, but mostly it’s having to do with people and teamwork, and finding something for every volunteer to do that’s really turning their crank, and, you know, giving them some reward that’s not financial, that’s much more significant.”

There are nine CUDs across the state, involving more than 200 towns, and each one is at a different stage of advancement.

A photo of a person leaning against a wooden spool which reads "optical cable"
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Steven John, chairman of Deerfield Valley Fiber, stands near a reel of fiber optic cable. Deerfield Valley expects to get about 300 miles of cable, which it hopes to begin deploying sometime this year.

Up in the Northeast Kingdom, they’re already stringing fiber along the dirt roads, while a few groups are only in the early organizational phase.

Here in the Deerfield Valley, DV Fiber is working with a construction and engineering company from Maine to plan and build out the network, thanks to a $4.1 million federal grant.

Joshua Bohar is an engineer with the company Great Works Internet, and he says the work being done here in Vermont is being watched around the country as other states figure out how to spend their own broadband money.

“A lot of the larger providers for years have done a lot of market analysis that say it’s not worth building that last mile to a lot of these areas,” Bohar said. “So this is a pretty massive undertaking. And I think for all of the CUDs in Vermont, it’s a fascinating model that a lot of areas of the country have struggled with trying to figure out, how do we get symmetrical internet, and just broadband internet, to places that historically and perpetually are not served or underserved.”

More from VPR: Did Your Zoom Video Freeze Again? COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Internet Inadequacies

About half the CUDs have taken part in this bulk optic fiber purchase.

Along with the group in the Deerfield Valley, and in the Northeast Kingdom, fiber is also being delivered to Maple Broadband in Addison County and to CV Fiber, around Montpelier.

Rob Fish, who’s with the Vermont Community Broadband Board, says about 64,000 homes, or a little more than 20% of Vermont, has inadequate broadband service.

Fish says the CUDs are dealing with the supply chain and workforce shortages that are slowing things down everywhere, but he thinks that with this fiber now being delivered, there will finally be some progress made on connecting homes along the oft-mentioned "last mile."

A map of Vermont showing towns grouped in different colors.
Vermont Department of Public Service, Courtesy
Vermont's current communication union districts map.

“It’s important to remember just Vermont is ahead of the game right now,” Fish said. “Like, we have done our homework. We created these communication union districts. We’re getting funding out the door. And we’re going to see a lot happening over the summer. I am confident of that. There’s going to be several CUDs that are going to be hanging fiber in the fall and connecting their first customers. We’re excited for the momentum.”

And there is momentum, even though there are still gaps in funding, and challenges in moving the plans forward.

Back in the Deerfield Valley, the group is working with Green Mountain Power to prepare the poles, but the utility company has its own workforce issues.

The pole work is creeping along, and members of Deerfield Valley Fiber still think they will have their first customers online before the end of this year.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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