ECFiber Brings High-Speed Connectivity to Vershire & Neighboring Towns
East Central Vermont Community Fiber Optic Network, or ECFiber for short, is one of the outstanding features of living in Vershire, but it didn’t come about without a struggle. The ECFiber District was formed by a vote on Town Meeting Day 2008 by twenty-four towns in the eastern central region of Vermont who found ourselves well into the twenty-first century without adequate internet access, a situation compared by many to the impetus for the Rural Electrification project in the middle of the last century. Our connectivity - or lack thereof - had a big impact on the ability of Vershire residents to operate businesses from within the town and to keep in touch with family and friends, and on attracting people who might want to move here but not be virtually cut off from the rest of the world - well, not completely, though our rural location is also a benefit!
The dichotomy of rural beauty and modern technology is a delicate balance to maintain.
Nate Thames is Vershire’s current ECFiber representative, with each town in the ECFiber district sending one representative, as Vermont towns were represented in the legislature before re-apportionment several decades ago. Nate and his wife, Liz Thames, both work online from home, so they actually chose Vershire, when they moved here from Cambridge about a year ago, partly because it was one of the towns covered by ECFiber.
“It was a big worry for me to move here and not be connected enough,” agrees Kareen Obydol-Alexandre, who teaches French at the Mountain School. She keeps in touch with friends and family in the Caribbean and in France through Skype, Facetime and WhatsApp, rather than by phone. “Part of my students’ final French exam is conversation with my cousin in Paris,” which is now possible to conduct by video conferencing.
Marissa Mazzucco has lived in three different Vershire locations in the past several years, and has had ECFiber connected in each of them. She’s even arranging to connect her workplace now as well, the Anichini facility in Tunbridge. Marissa also manages the Made In Vershire Shop, which serves as a wireless cafe on Saturday mornings, and she appreciates ECFiber for its service to the community. “Quite a few people have been stopping by to use the internet from their cars,” when the Shop is closed, she has observed. “It’s also a nice surprize for the hostel guests,” she adds, referring to the Stagecoach Stop Hostel.
Both Kareen and Marissa have been able to virtually attend meetings in Vershire or other towns online when they couldn’t be there in person, due to the high-speed internet capacity of ECFiber, whether it was a snowstorm or Mountain School dorm duty preventing travel. The Vershire Women’s Wellness Circle is also starting to encourage this as an option for women who aren’t able to attend the second-Tuesday evening monthly meetings.
Kareen online at the central hot spot in town, the front porch of VerShare's Church-Orr House
John Roy has been a major force for progress in the ECFiber project from the beginning. He was the treasurer until about a year ago, and is currently the board chair of ValleyNet, the company that actually operates ECFiber. John explains this arrangement, “ECFiber is the body politic made up of representatives of all twenty-four towns. ECFiber contracts with ValleyNet to build and operate the network. Up to about a dozen employees of ValleyNet work for ECFiber.”
“Founded in October 1994, the primary purpose of non-profit ValleyNet is to provide and facilitate community-based information resources for the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont,” according to the ValleyNet website. It continues, “Our current primary goal and activity is to support efforts to bring universal broadband access to our community. ECFiber (the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District) contracts with ValleyNet to design build and operate its growing network.”
On a slightly more dramatic note, John relates the tale of what he sometimes refers to somewhat jokingly as the Vershire Insurrection that resulted in our gaining the support of the state government in developing the ECFiber District. “The Great Uprising of 2012 was very significant to the future of ECFiber in Vershire,” John affirms with a smile.
“The Vermont Telecommunications Authority had some grant money that anybody could apply in any town throughout Vermont, and you could get enough funds to build a telecommunications network in that town if it was, by state definition, underserved, which meant you did not have broadband, and there were no plans by any incumbents to build in the next year or two. Vershire was a poster child of the unserved. We had nothing.” This meant dial-up for many households at that time (including ours - I remember lamenting the inability to have two tabs open simultaneously) while others availed themselves of expensive satellite service with extremely slow uploading and interference by cloudy weather, which is pretty limiting around here.
Vershire residents come together to make things happen!
ECFiber submitted a proposal to build out Vershire and other areas, but two days after ECFiber filed its proposal, Fairpoint proposed to build in the same areas, so Vershire was by definition no longer “unserved” and therefore no longer unserved by a grant! “That's what the protest was all about,” according to John. “The incumbent telephone company had never served Vershire well, still had party lines in the 1990s, and was always twenty years behind the times. Meanwhile, Karen Marshall - who was the director of ConnectVT, then-governor Shumlin’s so-called telecommunications czar, and the governor’s appointee to the VTA board - said that not everybody needs high-speed internet.” Vershire vehemently disagreed.
James Porter of the VTA and Telecommunications Czar Karen Marshall with Senator Mark MacDonald and Representative Susan Hatch Davis addressing the crowd pictured above.
To make a long technical and political story a bit shorter, the citizens of Vershire persisted through letters in local newspapers, a Vershire delegation that met with Shumlin, and an actual protest march down Vt. Rt. 113 from the Vershire Post Office to the Book, Bake and Plant Sale that was taking place that day at VerShare’s Church-Orr House. Despite several more hurdles, the network was built and now will be virtually complete in the next two years. And to make a longer financial story shorter as well, the funding that made this all possible ended up coming from the populations of these towns in the form of $2500 promissory notes. This was truly a modern high-tech venture built from the grassroots up, a virtual barn-raising if you will.
The Great Uprising for High-Speed Internet in Vershire, the Rural Electrification effort of the 21st Century!
“Right now we cover about twenty-three miles of the thirty-eight that there are in town and we have slightly over one hundred customers in Vershire, which has just over three hundred households,” John reports. It is hoped that 2018 and 2019 will see all but three of the towns in the ECFiber district built out completely, able to connect anyone in those towns who wants the service. “The exceptions are Montpelier, Woodstock and Hartford. All three of them have very good (not total, but very good) cable coverage. They already have pretty good internet and if we start building there we're not going to get the same take rate as in towns where they don't have cable.” It’s also much more expensive to build out the entirety of those towns as parts would have to be underground and it’s also more expensive to add to the utility poles there. “In actual fact, we are right now doing some building in South Woodstock and we're doing a little bit on parts of the edges of Hartford, and absolutely nothing in Montpelier at this moment.”
Pittsfield, Barnard, Pomfret, Strafford, Thetford, and West Windsor are expected to be completely covered by the end of this year. Which towns are completed next year will correspond to the greatest response to postcards ECFiber will be sending out explaining the plans. ECFiber will build where the demand is greatest in 2018, then in 2019, all going well, will complete the buildout of the twenty-one towns.
Wow. A non-profit running a multi-municipal telecommunications service that’s locally-funded - and exceeds internet speeds in Silicon Valley! How could this happen? Well, I think the answer is another question: Where could this happen? And the answer is, “In Vermont!” I’ve heard it said around here that Vermont is so far behind that we’re ahead. Something to ponder at least. But perhaps retaining the ancient traditions of homegrown solutions to global problems is still a viable option in a modern world of hostile takeovers and too-frequent disconnection from neighbors and community. It may seem funny that high-speed internet could bring folks together who live right down the street, but that’s a paradox of our times, like offering wifi at our Town Center, the same place where we hold Town Meeting, one of New England’s strong foundations of democracy, as is free exchange of communication. Maybe we are so far behind - deliberately - that we’re ahead, or at least keeping up, while refusing to surrender best-loved traditions that have served our communities well for centuries.
Fred Crowley, former Vershire representative to ECFiber, shares this succinct vision. “One of my hopes for full fiber optic connectivity in Vershire is for good and full communication among all townspeople with each other and with the town's institutions.” Thanks for your service and persistence, Fred, Nate, John and all the others who helped to carry this project forward - or there wouldn’t even be a Vershire Buzz!
Thanks also to Jean MacDonald, John Roy and ECFiber for the photos besides the one I took of Kareen.
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