MANCHESTER — The Southern Vermont Communications Union District’s rollout of high-speed fiberoptic cable to Bennington County is entering its second year — and by fall, the work will be done.
Consolidated Communications Inc., the telecom firm contracted by the Southern Vermont CUD, ran ahead of schedule stringing cable in Bennington and Shaftsbury last year, and has started work in Manchester. A job that was anticipated to take as long as five years in the CUD’s 14 towns is now expected to be completed in a matter of months.
“We will be the first CUD to reach universal coverage, well in advance of others,” Southern Vermont CUD board president Eric Hatch said. “We’re very happy for that.”
How did that happen, when other CUDs had a head start on the Southern Vermont CUD? “Really, it’s our partnership with Consolidated,” Hatch said. “They have been an amazing partner. They’re very much interested in the same goal as the CUD.”
Consolidated, for its part, said the Southern Vermont CUD’s cooperation was essential in making the quick pace of work possible.
"They did a lot of work early on to get this off the ground,” Consolidated Director of Government Affairs Scott Brooks said. “They got their RFP submitted in a timely manner, we responded, and they have done a great job. When they chose us to partner, we were able to expedite this into our build plan.”
Overall, the investment is worth $27 million in private and public funds, Brooks said. That includes $9 million from the state through the Vermont Community Broadband program, as well as the federal Rural Development Opportunity Fund and the company's own investment in upgrading its fiberoptic network.
Consolidated is amid rolling out its Fidium high speed broadband service. Those interested can go to fidiumfiber.com to check availability and price plans.
Phase 1 of the project, built last year, provided high-speed service to unserved and underserved households in Bennington, Woodford, most of Shaftsbury and Glastenbury. That included 500 homes that otherwise would not have been served by high-speed internet.
Phase 2 will include Dorset, Landgrove, Londonderry, Manchester, Peru, Pownal, Rupert and Sandgate. That’s expected to be completed by the end of this year, leveraging federal funding to connect 2,000 households that otherwise would not be reached.
Work is starting in Manchester, Londonderry and Winhall this month, followed by Dorset in May, Arlington in June, and Pownal and Rupert in July, Hatch said.
It was expected that the third phase would reach the “hardest 100” households. That number is now down to 20 households, Hatch said.
Brooks and Kyle Thweatt, a senior communications specialist at Consolidated, said the company worked closely with the Southern Vermont CUD to identify which homes could be served presently and which needed to be addressed as part of the final phase.
“That goes back to the concept that these builds take all of that partnership coming together,” Thweatt said.
So far, customers have been pleased with the level of service, according to Hatch. “People love it. There have been no service interruptions,” he said.
At present, customers who sign up for 2-gigabit speeds can receive a discounted price of $85 per month for the first year of service, and $95 per month thereafter, the company said. Service at 1-gigabit speeds is also available.
In Manchester, at a Selectboard meeting earlier this month, Town Manager Scott Murphy informed the board that work would begin on April 17 and run through September. He said the company would be stringing 130 miles of cable on poles and running another 22 miles through conduit already buried downtown.
“It’s tremendous benefit to the community and to anyone who signs on,” Murphy said.
In Winhall, Fred Schwacke, the town’s representative on the Southern Vermont CUD board, said Consolidated came to a recent Winhall Select Board meeting to inform the board of its plans. “After 20 years of tying to get halfway decent internet in Bondville, it's going to happen,” Schwacke said.
Schwacke has been critical of the Southern Vermont CUD for a number of reasons, including the allocation of federal funds to private companies and what he says is a “lack of local control” of the network — a characterization Hatch does not agree with. But Schwacke said he is pleased that the work will take place this spring and summer.
“Our kids and small businesses have gotten the crappy end of the stick forever, and finally they will have internet,” he said. “I personally am very much looking forward to it.”
CUDs are municipal boards established to work with broadband providers to close the “last mile” gap by providing reliable, affordable broadband service to the roughly one-third of Vermonters who lack reliable access. They were established by an act of the Legislature, as a means to bridge the gap on “last mile” service.