A plan to offer broadband to hundreds of underserved households in a Northeast Kingdom school district could be a model for quickly bolstering internet access during the Covid-19 crisis, state officials believe.
Two small internet providers — Cloud Alliance, based in Stowe, and New England Wireless, based in West Lebanon, New Hampshire — have been working to roll out a new wireless service to help students and staff in the Kingdom East Unified Union School District.
The eight-town district serves about 1,800 students in Caledonia and Essex counties, and at least 150 of them either can’t afford or don’t have access to high-speed internet, Department of Public Service Commissioner June Tierney said earlier this month.
The department has been facilitating the project — which also involves the Vermont Electric Power Co., NEK Community Broadband and the Vermont Public Broadcasting Service — and believes it could be a short-term template for aiding internet-starved areas statewide.
“It’s so very important to have an early success that is demonstrable and that can deliver so that people can see it as a model for more things to come,” Tierney said May 12 during a joint meeting of the House Energy and Technology and Senate Finance committees.
The idea is to mount devices that can transmit wireless signals onto two telecom towers in the area, one on Burke Mountain and one in Lyndonville, said Michael Birnbaum, Cloud Alliance’s manager.
Those signals would be received by antennas on people’s homes, he said, and in turn they could be able to access internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads and 5 megabits per second for uploads — just above the federal definition for broadband, or high-speed, internet.
“This is something that can be done within the calendar year,” Birnbaum said, adding that though advocates might prefer a faster fiber service instead, “We don’t think people who are locked in their houses can wait.”
As Luc Beaubien, managing member of New England Wireless, said: “It may not have the capacity of fiber, but it is much less expensive and much faster to deploy.”
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The Burke Mountain Tower is owned by Vermont PBS, and the one in Lyndonville is owned by a private company, Birnbaum said. Vermont Electric Power Co., or VELCO, has antennas on both towers and is helping the providers get space on them too, he said.
Early conversations in March between VELCO, the school district and Evan Carlson — chair of the newly formed NEK Community Broadband district — resulted in Cloud Alliance and New England Wireless coming aboard.
The partners analyzed data from the school district and initially found 193 addresses that either couldn’t afford broadband or had no options to buy it because of their locations. The addresses also overlapped with Lyndon Institute’s boundaries, Carlson said.
Birnbaum said a high percentage of those addresses will be able to get service from the project, though their speeds may vary based on the density of surrounding foliage and the hills and mountains in the area.
Birnbaum expects the project “will be ready for September.” But much of the plan is still in limbo.
The most pressing question is funding.
Several parties estimated the effort could cost between $200,000 and $300,000 total. Cloud Alliance and New England Wireless can chip in some of that money, Birnbaum said, and some of the ancillary partners may be able to help, too.
Some of Vermont’s $1.25 billion CARES Act award could be used to buoy the initiative.
“That’s an example of a project where I would advocate for a very stretch argument, if necessary, to draw down such CARES monies as are available,” Tierney, the Public Services commissioner, told lawmakers.
Clay Purvis, head of the department’s telecommunications division, said the project could apply for the state’s Connectivity Initiative grant program, which in the past has given out funds in the Kingdom East project’s cost range.
Birnbaum said he has talked with lawmakers and executive branch officials about the CARES funds and how the project could provide broadband for distance learning, telehealth and remote working.
“Obviously, there are huge needs in the state, (so) we’re trying to propose appropriate amounts of money for this,” he said. “Everyone knows now, if they ever doubted it, that broadband has never been more essential … for normal daily life.”
Public Services’ proposed emergency broadband plan, released in early May, is focused on securing federal funds outside of the CARES Act, and those could be used for efforts like this, too.
The level of federal funding for the Northeast Kingdom project will impact rates the two providers will charge for services, Birnbaum said, though the companies are open to reducing costs for low-income families.
In the meantime, Jennifer Botzojorns, superintendent of the Kingdom East district, said the connection problems have been frustrating for families, and she is excited by the prospect of improved broadband services.
“It means whatever (learning) model we need to do next fall, we’ll be able to provide some online work for our kids,” she said.
Advocates and some legislators are pushing for long-term, fiber-based rollouts in the future, but in the meantime they say more wireless projects are needed.
Purvis said RTO Wireless, which in April helped deploy Wi-Fi hotspots statewide, has proposed wireless projects elsewhere. And Birnbaum said he has been involved in similar efforts in central Vermont, aimed at Plainfield, Marshfield and Calais.
“In a perfect world, this kind of project can be replicated in the short term around the state to be able to provide some level of access to unserved students,” Carlson said. “This is an absolute necessity to get students connected now.”
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