Six percent of those surveyed in the new VPR-Vermont PBS Rural Life Survey said they had a “major problem” with access to high-speed internet, while another 14% said that not having broadband was a “minor problem” for them or their family. While these numbers may seem low, Vermont’s telecommunications chief said the survey results line up accurately with the state’s own data.
But for that population without quality internet, it’s a big problem, indeed, both in terms of work and the quality of life. That’s why community-led efforts around the state are focused on improving service quality, or bringing broadband to the last mile.
The Collinsville Road section of Craftsbury is remote, even by Northeast Kingdom standards. The long dirt road winds below Lowell Mountain. A lone mailbox appears occasionally, but mostly you drive by woods and fields.
Carol Maroni has lived out here for 35 years, and she recently got an upgraded connection to the modern world.
On a recent morning, backhoe operator Ben Kreuger pivoted his machine into place and started tearing up sections of Maroni’s lawn. The trench was for a fiber-optic line that provides very high-speed internet.
While Maroni did have internet service before, it was a slow DSL connection through Consolidated Communications. For Maroni, who’s on the board of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, it just was not fast enough to access documents online.
Living in a broadband backwater also affected her professionally as well. Maroni is a nurse and was considering a job doing quality review of Veterans Administration medical records, but she learned her previous connection was too slow for this work.
“That stopped the conversation,” Maroni said, “because they said there was no way that I would be able to be effective in doing that. … It actually prevented me from getting a job.”
More from VPR — The Challenges Of Bringing Broadband To Vermont’s Hills And Hollows [Feb. 24]
The fiber-optic line now installed to Maroni’s house was the culmination of months of community meetings, planning, and many hours of grant writing.
“This all started in Craftsbury because of, really, a grassroots effort by the community,” she said. “And I think that is what’s happening, is people want internet and find that they need it so much in their lives that … there’s a groundswell of activity.”
Maroni’s fiber connection will tap into an internet infrastructure that is owned by public and private entities. The state owns fiber that gets part of the way to Collinsville Road. The town of Craftsbury owns another section of fiber. A private provider, Kingdom Fiber, leases the publicly owned lines and extended fiber up the Collinsville Road.
Michael Birnbaum, CEO of Kingdom Fiber, was at Maroni’s place to oversee the installation. He said projects like this are essential for both economic development and to stem the population decline in rural Vermont.
“One of the best solutions for keeping population is to provide opportunity,” Birnbaum said. “And, you know, the Northeast Kingdom certainly needs development and that’s what we’re about. And Craftsbury has been working on that for some time.”
State telecommunications director Clay Purvis said he is not surprised by the VPR-Vermont PBS Rural Life Survey numbers on broadband access. He said the state’s own research also shows 6% of addresses in Vermont are not served by broadband.
But Purvis said for those who don’t have functional broadband, it is a big issue in their lives — and he added that while many people may have access, it’s not always the best quality.
“It’s not great broadband, but it will allow you to check your email, stream video, do some very basic things on the internet,” Purvis said. “It’s not great for business. You can’t run a business on that kind of connection.”
Maroni counts herself among those who had basic internet, but it wasn’t fast enough to work from home.
Many areas like Collinsville Road may already have basic DSL service, but that service doesn’t provide the nearly unlimited speeds that fiber to the home can offer. So the new community-based ventures often find themselves competing with for-profit companies.
The new providers will have to compete on quality, customer service, as well as price. Purvis said customer service may be a big selling point, because people may want to deal with a local company that they can get on the phone for a quick response.
Purvis said many of the community projects received grants to get started and will now need cash flow from subscribers.
“The real question will be: Can they sustain operations with the revenue that they generate? And it’ll be interesting to see. I really think it [Craftsbury] will be a test case,” he said.
Purvis also noted that there’s a risk for community-backed projects like Craftsbury’s because they’re extending high-speed fiber into areas that for-profit companies already decided weren’t worth it.
“It’s a question of demand: Are people going to leave Consolidated and switch to the fiber-based product? Consolidated offers kind of the economy broadband package, it’s probably going to be cheaper than a new fiber package,” Purvis said. “So people are going to be choosing between economy and quality in a lot of ways.”
But Purvis said the state built its fiber network and has other state programs in part to jump-start efforts like Craftsbury’s, knowing that local groups would take risks to provide service that the big telecoms wouldn’t.
Michael Birnbaum said Kingdom Fiber does need a critical mass of customers to sustain itself and grow. For competitive reasons, he didn’t want to say exactly how many new customers he’s hooked up so far in Craftsbury. But he said he’s confident because the project is a regional effort that will involve 22 towns.
“So we have to hit critical mass, and we will because we’re going to so many towns. And hopefully we will extend into the towns in the same way that we have in Craftsbury,” Birnbaum said. “But even without that, just following the state networks and serving … a nice percentage of the people we pass will get our critical mass and then some.”
The Craftsbury broadband buildout prioritized routes around town that would serve as many businesses as possible. The Craftsbury General Store was recently hooked up, and the place serves as a community hub where it seems almost everyone in town stops by at least once a day.
That’s where I met Jessie Upson who’s involved in several Craftsbury businesses, including a wellness center and a new bistro. Upson said the new broadband brought some basic improvements.
“Have music playing at the same time as doing a credit card,” she said, with a laugh. “And then all of our Airbnb guests are very happy, too, that they can continue their business while they’re here.”
Back at Collinsville Road, the trench digging hit a slight snag — a sewer pipe, actually. Backhoe operator Ben Kreuger said he thought the metal pipe was another rock; but, he said, it won’t take long to fix.
“It’s not a problem,” Kreuger told Maroni. “You’ll have [an] upgraded sewer pipe.”
Birnbaum of Kingdom Fiber, who’s been on the installation job all morning, seems unfazed. He explained that most installations aren’t this complicated since they don’t involve buried lines.
Despite the snag, Carol Maroni seemed delighted with the project. It is, she said, the community stepping up to provide what is now an essential service – just like electric cooperatives did in the 1930s to bring power to rural areas long neglected by for-profit utilities.
“We’re finding that same problem now with internet. … You know, people want it,” Maroni said, “and I think when it’s there and available people will sign up for it and it’ll be worthwhile.”
More of these community projects will likely be launched in the years ahead. A bill passed this spring made grant money available to plan projects like the one in Craftsbury. The legislation also created a state-backed loan program to get them built.