Franklin County – Franklin County and Lamuel County communities that are still completely underserved or underserved in terms of Internet access may have an option for faster Internet services: Google Fiber.
Northwest FiberworX (NWFX) and Lamoille Fibernet (LFCUD) are in “advanced discussions” with Google Fiber to hire an Internet Service Provider (ISP) as Communications Union (CUD) regions first to provide service through the planned new network.
Sean Keogh, CEO of NWFX, said that while there are many kinks to resolve, there is a deal looming and the two entities hope to finalize within the next three to six weeks.
Google Fiber CUDs will provide guaranteed pay-per-address over the next 30 years, providing at least $45.8 million in guaranteed revenue for CUD, according to a fact sheet provided by the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB).
Funds will go towards building the network, which will cost approximately $109 million. The rest of the money will come from grants from the VCBB.
Until about four months ago, NWFX (formerly Northwest Communications Union District) was entirely volunteer-based. However, in November, Kio became the entity’s first full-time employee.
The agreement with Google Fiber is the first thing Kio hopes to have with other ISPs. NWFX and LFCUD strive for an “open access” model, recruiting multiple ISPs and encouraging competition.
The agreement also signifies a partnership between NWFX and LFCUD in an effort to make the larger region more attractive to potential ISPs.
“By joining forces, CUDs represent a larger population improving economic efficiencies by working with broadband consultants, service providers and network operations vendors,” said Val Davis, CEO of LFCUD in a March 9 press release.
The idea, Keough said, is for the area covered by CUDs to become a “marketplace for ISPs.”
The planned network is intended to serve every home and business that is not currently connected to a fiber network. If and when multiple ISPs log in, users will be able to choose their own service provider rather than being limited to just one option.
Keough said the agreement with Google Fiber is the first step toward that goal.
What will the consumer pay
The way the relationship between CUD, ISP and consumer is structured is that CUD owns, operates and maintains the infrastructure. Then, Google Fiber, or another Internet service provider, will pay an entry fee to ride on the network and provide services to homes and businesses.
Then the consumer pays the ISP for the service and pays the infrastructure fee to CUD for the maintenance and operation of the network. NWFX assures that even with the infrastructure fees, the rates will still be lower than what other ISPs offer for the same service.
Keough said that in conversations with several ISPs gauging interest in the agreement, the reaction has been anywhere from cautious readiness to outright skepticism about the plan.
“Google Fiber, it’s a big enough entity that they were willing to take a risk with us,” Keough said. “And there was some strong alignment between the ideals and what the Alliance for Unity and Democracy represented.”
The stated goal of the CUDs is to resolve broadband inequality in Vermont.
“These CUDs are committed to bringing fiber internet to every home and business in their area – in one of the most rural states in the country – and we are excited to have discussions with them about how Google Fiber can help achieve this,” said David Finn, director of corporate development at Google Fiber in Press Release on March 9. “We hope this project will become a model for many other communities that need fast and reliable internet.”
One of the main things Kio said was attractive about partnering with Google Fiber is the fact that it won’t charge a different price for the service in Vermont than it does elsewhere in the country.
“They’re not going to charge 30% more just because it’s rural Vermont,” Keough said. “So this was one of those things that we found really interesting. The pricing is really competitive so we felt it was a win-win for everyone.”
Although Google Fiber pricing is subject to change, current prices are $70 for 1 Gig and $100 for two gigs, according to the VCBB information sheet. The paper also notes that prices have not changed in more than 10 years.
Google Fiber also commits to offering a $30 per month plan to any eligible family for the Affordable Connection Program. This program offers support of $30 per month.
The infrastructure fee, which all goes directly to CUD to cover the maintenance and operation of the network, will not exceed $15 per month.
Why is it difficult to obtain the interest of the company
The lack of services in these communities is primarily due to profit.
“Unserved and underserved people in rural areas today, are not served because there is really no feasibility study,” said Christine Halquist, executive director of the VCBB. “No one came and served these rural areas because they would lose money.”
Therefore, the massive amount of money that is coming from the state to build these networks is meant to make them a better business case, Halquist said.
What makes the convention and vision for NWFX and LFCUD unique, however, is their open access component.
If all goes well, Keough said, it will be the only model of its kind in Vermont.
Other CUDs have agreements with ISPs, enlisting them as full project partners, helping with the design and construction.
Hallquist said most ISPs won’t have an open access agreement because in business terms, companies don’t usually like the competition.
“Most providers don’t want anyone else on the system out there,” Halquist said. “They don’t want open access because if it doesn’t make sense for one business case for one provider, it certainly doesn’t make sense for two, so most providers won’t make those kinds of deals. The unique thing is that Google Fiber says, ‘We don’t worry about competition, because we We think we are the best. We welcome the competition.”
Commitment to data privacy and net neutrality
Keough said that as part of the agreement, CUDs are committed to data privacy and network neutrality for Google Fiber, and insist that there be protective language in the agreement for consumers.
“The good thing is that CUD owns, maintains and operates the network, so if any ISP abuses the data or does not act in good faith, we own the highway,” Keough said. If we get rid of that relationship, we can end that deal if they don’t stick to the rules.”
The benefit of this type of structure, Keough said, is that the people covered by the CUD, are protected by fellow Vermonters.
“We don’t owe it to the ISP,” he said. “The ISP simply provides services on the publicly owned network.”
People can still expect to build on pillars for the new grid over the next year, though Keogh said he’s not sure what exactly that will look like.
He said the manpower and supply shortages are still very real, but he’s optimistic about some implementation this year and really successful in 2023. The total projected construction schedule is 36 months, which means NWFX expects a fully capable network within three years.
Keough said this agreement with Google Fiber is a huge leap forward for CUD, and now that some revenue is secured, they can get more work done as quickly as possible.
However, the work that NWFX has done up to this point has also been very rapid, having experienced a tremendous amount of growth since its inception over a year ago.
“I should get Sean’s fame there [Kio] and Northwest FiberworX because it’s sharp,” Halquist said.
Hallquist said Vermonters should be proud that the state has stuck to that offering, adding that it’s unique for the state to have the obligation to line every home address with fibre.
Keough said it will take some time, but he and NWFX are confident about the future.