This is the transcript for episode 298 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher Mitchell interviews Jeremy Hansen from Berlin, Vermont, on how he organized for a Communications Union District in Central Vermont. Listen to this episode here.
Jeremy Hansen: It was 100 percent success rate. You know some towns it was unanimous in all 12 that voted on it so far. That's past.
Lisa Gonzalez: You were listening to episode 298 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. March 6th was Town Meeting Day and many local communities in Vermont in addition to specific budget issues and land use questions. Citizens of a dozen towns in the central area of the state voted to join together to form a Communications Union District. The Communications Union District is an entity formed to create telecommunications infrastructure in much the same manner as towns in Vermont form sewer or water districts Communications Union Districts first took shape a few years ago when the state created the designation .Communications Union Districts have the ability to issue revenue bonds in order to deploy Internet network infrastructure. Since then east central Vermont fiber has become a Communications Union District which has allowed the network to expand more efficiently and quickly. In this episode Christopher talks with Jeremy Hansen a Select Board Member from Berlin, Vermont, who has led the effort to begin a Communications Union District in his region. He and Christopher discuss how the need for better connectivity inspired voters to support a central Vermont internet in addition to the situation there we hear about the steps that Jeremy took. And what's next. Now here's Christopher with Jeremy Hansen from Berlin, Vermont..
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the community broadband booths podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in St. Paul, Minnesota where for once I'm interviewing a guest that has more snow on the ground than we do so. Welcome to the show Jeremy Hansen.
Jeremy Hansen: Thanks Chris. Good to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Jeremy you're a Select Board Member of Berlin, Vermont.. You're in the middle of a sizable snowstorm but the reason we're having you on is because you're a founder of central Vermont a project and a professor of computer science. So I think the first thing to ask you is what does Berlin, Vermont, like?
Jeremy Hansen: It's pretty rural. I mean most of most of Vermont is fairly small.
Jeremy Hansen: We're right next door to the capitol city which is Montpelier smallest capitol city in the United States with about 8000 people. Berlin only has about 3000. But we are a bit of a commercial hub around here. We have a lot more businesses than most of the surrounding towns. We have an airport. We actually have an Amtrak station interstate passes through here so there's a lot of stuff going on here. But all of that infrastructure notwithstanding we don't actually have reasonable internet speeds in most places around here in central Vermont. A little bit of cable but it's mostly really poor quality DSL everywhere else.
Christopher Mitchell: Some of the people in your town or just in Montpelier have cable?
Jeremy Hansen: So it's scattered it's really really the low hanging fruit. The denser places around in Montpelier here in Berlin actually two doors down from where I live. They do have cable but the way that the utility poles are situated it's not it's not going to reach me via that route.
Jeremy Hansen: So I'm in a slightly more sparse area where the economics for the larger incumbent providers are just not there.
Christopher Mitchell: So you decided to do something about it. The central Vermont Internet project I think a good place to start is what is your vision when this project is rolling. What's it going to look like.
Jeremy Hansen: I'm looking for this to be fibre to the home so gigabit speeds to basically everyone in the number towns all homes businesses civic institutions and all towns. Now this is a structure that's I don't totally familiar but it's not new here in Vermont. See fiber which I believe you had on the show before. They've done this and it's working in much sparser towns than what we're talking about you know around the Capitol and in this county just to the north of D.C. fiber's territory. So we're looking to essentially duplicate our success and you know bring people high quality reasonably priced fibre to the home.
Christopher Mitchell: You see fiber which is short for the East Central Vermont fiber network for some reason the seems to disappear in their radiation. Thought they included Montpellier and I realized they could be Igloolik 25 towns. At some point it must have confused myself.
Jeremy Hansen: No you didn't confuse yourself at all. They Montpelier is actually an fiber town and now it's essential from the Internet town.
Jeremy Hansen: Also strangely enough but because Montpelier was so geographically separate from all of the other member towns it wasn't contiguous with those other towns. Their business model would have had to be had to be rather different. To get to Montpelier they would have had to know paid for back hauling their connection or run a rather long spur of their existing network of and that just doesn't make sense. Not to mention that Montpelier is basically 100 percent covered by cable so their take rate is going to be rather a lot lower than some of the towns they were working with before. All that said because Montpelier is contiguous with a lot of the towns that were interested in this and actually in another city that's roughly the same size next door to Berlin here very city is about the same size has about the same amount of coverage of cable. So it may not make sense for us to start there just because of the competition there but we would essentially be running cables through them anyways in order to get to the other communities in the area. So if we're running cable there anyways that makes sense to have them onboard and sign people up that are not easily accessible at least with some of the initial builds.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure and I'm guessing you've been in touch with Carole Monroe then and presumably a lot of other people have easy fiber.
Jeremy Hansen: Absolutely yeah and they've been extremely helpful. I actually learned more about their structure. Funny enough. Right through this podcast. So I went tonight. I visited their facility so I know what their operations look like.
Jeremy Hansen: I talk to their tech geeks because I'm fluent in geek myself you know and they came and presented to a couple of other Select Board Members and city councillors up here in central Vermont kind of gave us the lay of the land and have an extremely extremely indispensable for us to at least wrap our minds around what this looks like when they took many years with false starts to get their funding.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's hope that the model is more proven now. But I'm curious to what extent you're going to be doing a similar sort of thing I mean there as I think of it there are municipally owned but it's effectively run by a non-profit it seems like. And the main thing that they did they didn't actually really issue revenue bonds or anything like that which is pretty common. They sold private debt to people who wanted to buy it and supported a lot of local folks from what I understand.
Jeremy Hansen: And that's and that's where they started. They did that sort of crowdfunding mechanism before they went and got revenue bonds and they were able to then use those revenue bonds and actually pay off some of that higher interest rate debt from previous years. Just given the the way that the bond market works I'm expecting that there's going to be a certain amount of that with Central Vermont Internet as well where we will have to start smallish and look for private local investors and once we have proven that we're not incompetent and that we can have revenue with the limited build out for the first few years then we'll be able to go and say to the to the bond markets like hey you know we're here we want to borrow here's you know here's our model and go from there.
Jeremy Hansen: And we have some other opportunities there's a there's a bill floating around in the legislature I actually have a check where it is right now here in Vermont that would actually add two million dollars which on most states budgets is not all that much. But for Vermont it's actually decent size some that would actually add quite a bit of funding to what's called the connectivity initiative here and that would give us the ability to or I should say we give the state the ability to put out some more grants for building building fiber and building high speed internet out to underserved and unserved addresses in Vermont.
Jeremy Hansen: So I'm optimistic that we can probably net some of that like fiber has in the past.
Christopher Mitchell: It sounds like you've already had a referendum on your ideas a bunch of the towns around you voted on it. How did that go it went.
Jeremy Hansen: It was amazing actually so in order for us to create the district the statute says that you have to put it on the town meeting ballot or have a town meeting vote from the floor. So New England and Vermont in particular having a rich and a directly democratic town meeting tradition in Berlin for example. You know there was a motion on the floor that I made that was part of our meeting seconded and went through the process and then I gave a give a bit of a presentation and it was voted you know eyes and nays from the floor and it was unanimous so I also talked to a bunch of other towns and said You know I ask their legislative bodies their select boards or city councils to go and put this in front of the voters. A couple of Tuesdays ago it was 100 percent success rate. You know some towns it was unanimous like in Berlin but in all 12 that voted on it so far that's passed. It's a very very exciting.
Christopher Mitchell: It is very exciting and it fits very well with what we've seen. People really want something better. And particularly in New England there's a real value on keeping it local.
Jeremy Hansen: Now that's that's definitely true and that's one of my one of my slides and I talk about you know why did you do this. One of the things that really resonates with people aside from the fact that the internet will actually be fast is that we get local governance local control local accountability and then I usually add after that and local tech support. So if you call somebody you know that they're going to be somebody probably within 20 miles. The technician is could be somebody that you already know.
Jeremy Hansen: Yeah Vermont Vermonters certainly put a lot of importance on the local economy and having local personal contacts with businesses.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk a little bit more about how you got here. You know I think from what we talked about so far you kind of had an idea. You checked Odissi fiber. You give a presentation and when boom there you are. But I'm guessing there's a few steps in between for someone else who might be thinking about this and inspired to take action. How did you start educating yourself. And what were some of the steps that you took to make it happen.
Jeremy Hansen: This actually goes back a number of years so I started started looking at what are the other Internet options that are out there. And in my my academic life I do teach networking and I've published in networking and stuff about mesh networks and that sort of thing so I'm sort of familiar with some of the protocols and whatnot that are out there. And I started looking at places like before or end up in rural northwestern England.
Jeremy Hansen: The broadband for the rural north and looking at the model of what they had in which they would essentially encircle villages and they would have with fiber and they would have the farmers bring out the Trenchers and they would just dig the trenches right in the farm fields and lay the fibre and then connect the village sort of a hub and spoke model and then connects know continued down to the next village and such. And I thought you know this is a very Vermont thing to do. But even before that you know I've been in touch with the folks that do Fry folk in Berlin which I visit with some of my students every every year and that's a wireless mesh network.
Jeremy Hansen: The idea is to essentially provide more more even access to the Internet. And they've had some really good success there but it's such a dense place that we're just simply not work in Vermont so looking at all of these different possibilities do we be looking at WiMAX you know that that can work here to a certain extent and we do have a small WiMAX deployment in some of the what are now the current Central Vermont Internet number towns.
Jeremy Hansen: But looking at what is really the way forward what's really the right way to do this. I kept coming to fiber us you know that kept coming up that that's really going to be the way forward. It's not going to be putting up a bunch of towers which a lot of people here are resistant to.
Christopher Mitchell: That's perhaps a mild way of putting it. No it's for the entire tower.
Jeremy Hansen: Yeah and lots of you know plenty of lawsuits. You know even even some hearings of various regulatory boards here in Vermont you know as on the select board we had we had a chance to weigh in on a tower siting in our town. And that was yeah that generated a lot of feedback and I'll put that lightly.
Christopher Mitchell: Right right it may have been unanimous in the other direction perhaps.
Jeremy Hansen: Yeah I mean and that the tower got built anyways frankly which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way but you know using existing poles and adding you know adding another bundle of fiber on the poles. Nobody really cares a lot about that. And that was that was pretty effective.
Christopher Mitchell: Well I don't think it is worth noting I mean their importance. Use of towers for public safety radio and other things as well. I mean sometimes I would prefer never to have a sightline disturbed but sometimes we have to do that.
Jeremy Hansen: You know Vermont bans billboards for this reason. So people get really irritated when there's no other things that are going to prevent you know prevent us from seeing trees or Pennis from seeing the mountains and such.
Christopher Mitchell: That's right. It would be remiss if I didn't know that Vermont is a place that has a lot of quirks but it has a lot of local thriving businesses. It's wonderful for small businesses in part because these quirks are things that are navigable by local businesses and tend to keep the big chains out. So there's some value there and a little bit off topic. But we're talking about what you were doing to prepare. Once you settled on the technology what came next.
Jeremy Hansen: I already knew of a fair number of other Select Board Members in other towns. So I just started reaching out to them and I created a little presentation based on what I knew and what I learned from U.S. fiber and invited some folks to a presentation where they got to hear from me they got to hear from urban Carol at UC fibre and to the folks that didn't know the Select Board Members that didn't show up to that meeting. I just started getting on their agendas and showing up to their meetings giving them the presentation answering all the questions that they had and saying you know there's really not a drawback to this. You know with the structure that's that's here in Vermont there's no there's no tax implications.
Jeremy Hansen: This is not paid for cannot be paid for with tax money. So they would always ask me what's what's the drawback.
Jeremy Hansen: And I said I don't really know that there is one. You're essentially just giving us permission you know to create this structure and you have serve the residents of the town. And regardless of whether it was a you know a conservative group on the board or whether it was a you know a more progressive group on the board so it was always almost always I should say supportive. And so they voted they put it on the ballot and then you know I sort of went out and let folks in the media know they got wind of it themselves when they saw that had the same question was on all these Town Meeting Day agendas and then just a little bit outreach on Facebook. And that was that was really it. I mean I really started in earnest meeting with the select boards and getting the information out there.
Jeremy Hansen: I would say the end of October and then with a successful vote of these 12 towns in the beginning of March. And we've actually got you know there's another there's another town that has it on its Town Meeting ballot. But it's town meeting isn't until May and then there's a there's a 13th town that's probably going to be the 13th to adopt this. That's just to the north of us. The current member towns and other actually hopefully are going to be calling a special town meeting to get people to vote on this. You know from the floor not with the ballot and to send a delegate. When we meet for the first time in May. So it's essentially just networking and talking to people it was remarkably straightforward but fairly time consuming but for the most part with the exception of a couple of other people who you know attended meetings with me or wrote letters to the editor or otherwise to help me collect signatures in some cases. It was it was mostly just a one person job.
Christopher Mitchell: Given the problems that Bullington went through although as we frequently noted it sounds from our analysis that we did significantly more benefits them than problems that resulted from their network. I'm curious if you anticipated people raising that as an objection or concern. And what actually happened.
Jeremy Hansen: They would often raise that and I would say honestly I don't want to be in the position where I'm on the select board and I'm not holding a Monday night meeting until midnight for three weeks in a row because we can't decide what to do with our you know municipal broadband provider. It was not a not a great situation and I know some of the Burlington City Councillors and they were not you know super happy about the situation either you know but I wanted to make sure that I made clear was that a no tax dollars can be used.
Jeremy Hansen: It's clear in statute the town is not held responsible should something go wrong. This is a completely separate municipality. It's sort of overlays the existing municipalities but it is itself a different district with a different governing board and the individual select boards and city councils don't have to be involved in any of this stuff so at no point if something goes wrong. Not that I expect that it will bar any of these select boards of city council is going to be having meetings worrying about what's going to happen next.
Christopher Mitchell: I think my final question is whether or not this is happening elsewhere in Vermont. To me it sounds like there's still a lot of need in Vermont. It sounds like you know the incumbent telephone company just got resoled again. And there's no hope on the horizon for communities taking action like this. Are you seeing others trying to organize in other parts of the state a similar way.
Jeremy Hansen: Yes actually. So I got a message from another group. They use a they're using a slightly different organizational structure it's not called a communications union district which is what we're doing. They're calling you doing something called an r e d i a rural economic development infrastructure district and that's over in Newbury Vermont and they're essentially looking at just building fiber up just in that town and they are I think they're hoping to start building actually maybe this year. They have a similar idea you know as this effort that work that we have up in central Vermont with central internet it's been getting media attention. There's some folks in far southern Vermont down in the neighborhood of Brattleboro and a bit to the west and a bit to the north there there's some folks down there saying you know this is something that we want to do too you know how did you do it. Asking No many of the same questions that you're asking now Chris. You know how do we how do we go and do this.
Jeremy Hansen: And you know I had a meeting meeting with one of those folks on Monday and sort of laid out all of the details for how I approached it.
Jeremy Hansen: And then there. So he's pretty pretty encouraged that he can get this on the ballot in time for their town meeting next year and then have something like a southern Vermont Internet or whatever they decide to call themselves. It's not really a heavy lift creating the organizational structure. You know the heavy lift is than actually doing the raising of the money and the actual feasibility studies and making sure that everything actually gets built.
Christopher Mitchell: for those who are listening to this after Lisa has edited we just got cut off in part because of what Skype describes as too weak of a connection. Jeremy do you have a comment about that.
Jeremy Hansen: No it's not totally surprising at all I would joke when I would go to the Select Board meetings and I would say there's a common refrain in my house as I have two kids in my house and I always hear them, somebody shouting, Is anybody downloading anything because invariably if somebody is downloading something everything else grinds to a halt.
Jeremy Hansen: You know folks that live here in Berlin who only have DSL have work telecommuting which there's a surprising number of them. There are times when they can't do their work because of the the local speeds and that's really too bad.
Christopher Mitchell: Is there anything else that we should touch on. I feel like we've covered a lot of ground.
Jeremy Hansen: Well one of the other things that really was important as I was pitching this to the various boards and whatever was that the notion of net neutrality that was something that seemed for some people anyways to be of more importance than cost. You know they got challenged by somebody in one of the cities that has some existing infrastructure and they say you know I pay it I pay an decent amount and it's my speeds are fine. But if you know you offered you know the same service or you know even even a slightly higher rate you're saying or you're definitely not going to filter my traffic you're going to respect net neutrality. You said I'm switching. Wow. Very clear about that.
Christopher Mitchell: Tell me how you react to this. But it seems to me that the people are much more emotional about their Internet connections. Them I think most people appreciate and certainly more than they were five years ago.
Jeremy Hansen: I would say that's absolutely true. The fact that this is a local effort the fact that it's not a for profit effort and the fact that there's no net neutrality in subscriber privacy is something that is a hot button issue for people I think makes it really attractive. I mean I had somebody walk up to me after my town meeting presentation's says I want to loan you a thousand dollars right now. I say well hold on. I need a bank. I need a bank account first before that's even going to be a possibility.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well thank you so much for coming on the show telling us what you're doing and providing some hope for folks that are still trying to figure out what they can do.
Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for having me Chris. That was Christopher with Jeremy Hansen from central Vermont internet. For more about the project check out their Facebook page. We're also keeping up with the project and publishing stories on their progress at uni networks that work. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts --Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules. podcasts you can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank Arnie Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons, and we also want to thank you for listening to episode 298 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.