FAIRFAX – While the first round of the Broadband Innovation Grant Program may have passed Fairfax by, the town, according to officials, is set to continue exploring extending broadband coverage to the whole of Fairfax.
Earlier this month, Fairfax town manager Brad Docheff spoke with the Messenger about the town’s intentions to apply for a broadband innovation grant to explore having Fairfax build its own broadband network Fairfax could manage as a utility.
The town’s interest in broadband, Docheff said, had been a long time coming.
“Since I came into the job, it’s been a recurring issue residents have brought to my attention and sought action on,” Docheff said. “It’s not a new issue.”
Since that time, the town had applied to the public service department’s Broadband Innovation Grant Program and found its application denied in favor of several other projects in the state.
Docheff said earlier this week that it was not unexpected, either, since Fairfax’s decision to apply had been such short notice.
“When we applied for this cycle, we were aware that our plan was not as flushed out as others or was maybe premature,” Docheff said. “We haven’t gotten feedback yet on what elements of our grant could use brushing up, so I don’t know how we might pivot in response to those comments.”
“But the basic idea of having a town network where the municipality has leadership on that... that would be great,” Docheff said. “[Because] there has not been a lot of interest from private providers to take the lead, we were looking at a financial model that would go through the town and would be a self-funding, self-sustaining model.”
While Docheff told the Messenger earlier this week the town would wait on feedback until plotting another grant application for the grant program’s second round, another opportunity had appeared before Fairfax.
Tim Nulty, the CEO of Mansfield Community Fiber – widely known as MC Fiber – approached the Fairfax’s selectboard earlier this month with a rough framework for possibly extending MC Fiber’s own network into Fairfax.
MC Fiber, a smaller broadband provider based out of the Chittenden County’s rural northeast, has gradually expanded since its foundation in 2016 toward Lamoille and Franklin Counties.
According to Nulty, the company was working with the Town of Fletcher to partner on providing broadband within that community, with Fletcher possibly leveraging financial support for MC Fiber to build a network in the town.
Nulty, speaking with the Fairfax selectboard during a Nov. 18 meeting, came to Fairfax with a similar proposal.
“Because the parts we haven’t gone to are the sparsest parts... we can’t pay for it,” Nulty said. “If you’re willing to borrow the money and give us the advantage of the town’s borrowing capacity, then we can do the rest of the town.”
Already, Nulty said MC Fiber expected to spread into Fairfax by the end of 2020, with plans to snake its fiber network further north from Fletcher into an underserviced area in Fairfax’s northeast, near Huntsville.
MC Fiber grows in areas where competitors like Comcast have no presence, as, according to Nulty, the provider would not be able to leverage the kind of resources Comcast is able to. “It carefully avoids Comcast,” Nulty said. “We do not want to compete with Comcast – they’d squash us in a minute.”
According to Nulty, it costs MC Fiber between $17,000 and $20,000 for every mile of fiber it strings across Vermont Electric Cooperative and Green Mountain Power’s existing utility poles in the Franklin County area.
The company provides a basic service with download speeds of 25 megabytes per second and more expensive packages with faster uploads.
In a hypothetical agreement with the municipality, Nulty said the fiber would belong to MC Fiber but, if the company went out of business, infrastructure funded by Fairfax would become Fairfax’s property.
“If we go belly up, you own what you pay for,” Nulty said. “If we build that with your money and we go belly-up, you own that.”
In those instances, while the town would retain ownership of the fiber networks whose installation it helped fund, it would need to find another service provider to operate the network, according to Nulty.
“If things began to look bad, you’d know ahead of time,” Nulty, a longtime telecommunications veteran, said. “These companies don’t go out of business overnight.”
While most of Fairfax is covered by a basic 4 megabytes per second download speed according to state utility mapping, much of the town lacks access to the 25 megabytes per second upload speeds cited by Vermont’s broadband initiatives.
Fairfax residents who previously spoke with the selectboard suggested it would take anywhere between $3,000 to $30,000 out of pocket for larger providers like Comcast to extend broadband lines to their more isolated homes.
According to Docheff, the town is exploring a network that “looks at broadband connectivity as a necessary piece of public infrastructure,” using an approach modeled after other successful broadband projects in the country.
That model was not set in stone, however, according to Docheff. “I’ve always been open to different iterations,” Docheff said.
According to Docheff, broadband was a question of economics for the town, as a lack of Internet access could drive away prospective businesses or residents.
“If you want to come live in Fairfax, it’s a beautiful place and there’s these great quality of life things... but if you want to work from home and you can’t work from home, you can’t live here,” Docheff said. “You’re going to go someplace else.”
Even with the town having its original grant application passed over, Docheff said it helped bring conversations around broadband to the front of Fairfax’s agenda.
In the same meeting where the selectboard met with Nulty, the board also set broadband connectivity as one of the town’s priorities moving into 2020.
“It’s more on the table now and up for discussion now than it has been in the past,” Docheff said.