VELCO Network Highlights Potential And Challenge Of Statewide Fiber-Optic Broadband

Jan 16, 2015

Last September at a small break-out discussion during a conference on Vermont’s Digital Economy, Kerrick Johnson of the Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) made an announcement that raised eyebrows.

Johnson told participants that VELCO has more than 1,300 miles of fiber that could be used to get high speed broadband to Vermonters.

“I think it’s fair to say that people were surprised,” he says.

Johnson says the purpose of VELCO’s fiber network, which reaches nearly 70 percent of Vermont’s towns, is to transmit data between electric utility substations to maintain the reliability of the power grid. It was paid for by ratepayers in Vermont and the rest of New England. 

But the system has the capacity to carry broadband service, and VELCO is eager to lease that space. “How can we add value for the folks who paid for it? Because ultimately the value goes right back to ratepayers and at the same time advances public policy, without compromising the fundamental purpose of why we built this in the first place,” says Johnson.

Presently most Vermonters do not have access to fiber to home service, yet there appears to be plenty of fiber optic cable in Vermont.

Fiber is the broadband gold standard. It’s much faster than other technologies currently in widespread residential use. Fiber is also capable of providing high speeds symmetrically – meaning uploading is just as fast as downloading. Typically DSL, cable and mobile broadband speeds are much faster down than up. But as cloud computing catches on, upload speeds are become more important, especially to businesses.

The state’s new 10-year Telecommunications Plan sets a goal that would essentially require fiber optic broadband speeds to every Vermont home by 2024.

Most Vermonters now do not have access to fiber to home service, yet there appears to be plenty of fiber optic cable in Vermont.

According to the Public Service Department, most of the information about the components of Vermont’s telecommunications infrastructure is confidential, protected by agreements between the state and providers concerned about competition. But some information is available.

The department says cable provider Comcast’s fiber optic system is probably the most extensive in the state, but the system is not ‘open-access’ like VELCO’s. If a company wants to provide fiber to home service, it would make sense to use existing fiber lines to connect to homes, but Comcast is under no obligation to allow a competitor to use its system.

Under federal law, FairPoint Communications, which also has an extensive fiber system, is required to provide access at a regulated price.

Sovernet and VTel also have fiber networks. As recipients of federal grant money they are required to offer open access, but according to the Public Service Department, “in practice there are additional conditions that have precluded the widespread use of these networks by other companies.”

There's a good chance that there's fiber running down the road in front of your house. But that short missing piece – a fiber line from the street to the home, necessary for the highest speeds – is a tangle of regulatory, technical and financial problems.

There’s a good chance that there’s fiber running down the road in front of your house. But that short missing piece – a fiber line from the street to the home, necessary for the highest speeds – is a tangle of regulatory, technical and financial problems.

“To the best of my knowledge, very, very little of it is of practical usability if you want to be running fiber to homes,” says Irv Thomae, chairman of ECFiber, a community-owned fiber-to-home system in central Vermont.

There are several issues when it comes to using existing fiber for residential service.

Open access is one. Thomae says there’s also a technical issue. A system that isn’t built to provide fiber to homes is not easy or cheap to access for that purpose.

"We don't have imperial ambitions, but we do think that other regions of the state would be well-advised to look at what we do in detail and consider emulating us." - IRV Thomae, chairman of ECFiber

Johnson says he's aware of the technical issues, but indicates they can be overcome. He acknowledges that a variety of issues make using VELCO's system for broadband delivery complex. "I wish you could wave a magic wand and be done," he says. "That simply isn't the case."

Most fiber-to-home service in Vermont is provided by local telephone companies for existing customers. FairPoint, the statewide telephone company and Internet service provider, has no plans for residential fiber service. That’s because it's expensive to build, especially in rural areas.

The state’s most extensive fiber-to-home system, geographically speaking, is ECFiber, which currently has just under 1,000 customers. ECFiber uses its own network and also employs parts of 400 miles of fiber developed by the state.

There are plans to continue to expand service in the two dozen Vermont towns that own ECFiber. Thomae says there are no plans for expanding beyond that. “We don’t have imperial ambitions, but we do think that other regions of the state would be well-advised to look at what we do in detail and consider emulating us,” he says.

ECFiber is funded primarily by small investments from people in the towns it serves. State law prohibits the use of taxpayer money to fund such projects. If the state wants fiber to every address in the next decade, Thomae thinks that will require more community based efforts like ECFiber.

The idea got a boost this week when President Obama went to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to highlight that city’s community supported fiber-to -home network and announce new federal support to encourage others to start similar systems.

A Federal Communications Commission decision expected next month could also dramatically shift the landscape and give states the same ability to regulate broadband in the same way they oversee land line service.