At Town Meeting in March, 13 central Vermont communities will consider forming a communications union district, the sole purpose of which would be to bring fiber-optic internet service to the area.
There are many Vermonters who still don’t have high-speed options when it comes to accessing the World Wide Web. It's a problem for Jerry Diamantides, who works for a Virginia-based company from his home office in Berlin.
Diamantides is better off than some Vermonters, in that he has internet service strung to his house through the phone company. But, he says, the speed is only just adequate for the work he has to do.
"It is DSL," Diamantides explains. "The ‘S’ certainly stands for slow. The ‘L’ must stand for low. And we’ll let the ‘D’ stand on its own, I guess. But, it’s barely sufficient for what I need."
Beyond his personal frustrations, Diamantides sees a lack of high-speed internet as a community-scale problem.
"I see internet service as being an important economic driver, especially for rural communities," Diamantides says. "It’s similar to the way it was 50 years ago when folks were just getting phone service and electricity. To not have reliable, high-speed internet really puts a community at a disadvantage."
That’s the main idea behind Central Vermont Internet – which is up for a Town Meeting vote in Barre City, Barre Town, Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Marshfield, Middlesex, Montpelier, Northfield, Plainfield, Roxbury, Williamstown and Worcester.
Berlin Selectman Jeremy Hansen is behind the push to build a community-owned fiber-optic internet service provider in central Vermont. His plan is to emulate ECFiber, another community ISP that now serves over 2,000 customers in east-central Vermont.
Hansen says some parts of central Vermont have access to cable internet, and more have DSL, but neither of those services come close to fiber.
"Fiber internet gives us the ability to have gigabit speeds, which is essentially as fast as you can go nowadays," he explains. "Cable can provide and in some places ... provides maybe 100 megabits per second, if you’re lucky. DSL provides, maybe, 10 megabits per second, if you’re lucky. But only if you’re lucky."
In addition to being faster, Hansen says fiber service will not bog down when a lot of people are online at once.
He says he’s confident the measure will pass in all 13 communities. However, it only takes at least two towns voting 'yes' for those to form a communications union district. And because the district would be a stand-alone municipality, there’s no risk to the towns.
"The town is not on the hook," he says. "The town cannot use tax money. It’s against the law. The town is not on the hook for any liability for the loans that we take out to build this stuff."
Hansen says Central Vermont Internet will seek out grants and bonds to cover its startup costs. And those will be repaid from user fees once customers are brought online. Because it’s a municipality and not a company, Hansen says user fees will also go back into building out the network.
"Any money that we earn over covering our costs is gonna go into expanding and making the service better or making the monthly costs cheaper," he says.
Hansen adds that Central Vermont Internet will also guarantee net neutrality and subscriber privacy. It won’t sell personal information and it won’t be looking to upcharge customers or content providers for faster service.
"We don’t have to worry about ‘What are the ways that we can possibly squeeze more revenue, more profits out of it?’ because there’s no such thing as profit," he explains.
Hansen can’t yet say how much the service would cost. But, he says, ECFiber has been able to keep its rates about on par with cable and DSL providers.
If the new district is formed after Town Meeting, a board with representatives from each town will decide exactly when and where the service will be built out.