Woodstock Vermont

May 9, 2018

“All the doubting Thomases that we dealt with back in 2000-and-Something said it would never work. Well, they underestimated Vermonters, and today South Woodstock is a place which has high-speed fiber optic to the home, and that’s putting us on the map,” South Woodstock resident David Brown enthused on Monday at a celebration for the new internet cafe located inside the South Woodstock Country Store.

The internet cafe is a milestone for ECFiberNet which just last week lit up its 2,500th customer in the 24-town consortium that it has been building fiber-optic communication services into for the past decade.

Brown, who works for ValleyNet – which designs and builds the fiber network that forms the backbone of ECFiber, recalled the early days when backers of the once-wobbly startup went door-to-door in South Woodstock and raised $147,000 from residents who wanted real access to modern telecommunications. Those loans ended up being paid back early with interest when the company secured financing into the millions from larger backers but residents made it clear they still wanted the high-speed service more than they wanted their money returned, Brown recalled.

It was because of that ardent enthusiasm within South Woodstock for the project that ECFiber, which has now lit up customers in 21 of the 24 towns it is targeting, pushed hard to get a link from their installation in Brownsville up over Rush Meadow and Morgan Hill Roads to the 200-year-old country store that has recently been renovated by new owner Simran Johnston.

“Simi stepped up and said, ‘Guess what? We are going to re-do the store!’ and we said, ‘Let’s do an internet cafe here,’” Brown explained, noting that the link was ultimately made possible by “some local businesses with global reach that are running out of barns and basements” along the route the fiber took to get to South Woodstock.

Since the cafe went live earlier this year, “I’ve been here on days when you can’t find a seat,” Brown said, “I happen to know that there are people who have DSL connections who come down here to do their work, especially to upload files they can’t upload from home…and to have delicious cookies.”

Irv Thomae, who is the chair of the local ECFiber district, told the two-dozen people who gathered for Monday’s event that “a lot of people tend to think of ECFiber as a company, and we are not.”

Thomae explained that ECFiber is actually a “super town” comprised of the 24 member towns which, under Vermont law, get treated the same way that a town or municipal body such as a solid waste district would be.

So ECFiber is technically a “Telecommunications Union District” with delegates from each of its member towns having a vote in how it is governed.

“We are not funded from local taxes in any way, and that’s important,” Thomae added. He recalled how volunteers began meeting ten years ago to put the system together “because they all knew we need high-speed internet connections to remain part of the modern 21st-Century world.”

Beginning with a demonstration project in Barnard in2010, ECFiberNet connected their first customer just three days before Tropical Storm Irene hit, and they have since put 530 miles of fiber-optic cable in service in 21 towns, a few of which are now almost connected border-to-border.

“We have come a very long way,” Thomae said, adding, “We’ll be doing another bond issue this summer and again next year. There’s 1,400 miles of roads in our towns where people don’t have reliable high-speed service and our goal is to get to all of them by the end of 2020.”

Hartland’s Matte Dunne, the recent candidate for governor who now heads up the Center on Rural Innovation, told this week’s gathering at the country store: “This issue of broadband has been one that people have been after for a long time. People have been talking about how we really need Internet connections in this part of the state.”

“This is an amazing milestone to be here in South Woodstock, a place that did not have much connectivity of any kind, and be able to celebrate – not just pretty good connectivity – but excellent connectivity,” Dunne said.

“A hundred years ago getting electricity was important, and the parallels are really similar,” Dunne noted, harkening back to the “homework gap” that existed between kids who could stay up and read at night and those who couldn’t before the advent of the federal government’s Rural Electrification Administration.

“Today the difference in having broadband or not is also the difference for future-economy jobs the ability to have remote positions with any company anywhere,” Dunne said.

“As usual Vermont was ahead of the curve,” Dunne added, noting that in recent years, “This kind of effort is being replicated all over the country.”

“Going first is hard. It’s really hard because there isn’t a model for it. Even the biggest believers are skeptics,” Dunne said, “but when you go first you are able to pave the way for many others to do it.”

Johnston said that over the past couple months the internet cafe has been part of the store’s regular 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. rhythm (7 to 4 on Sundays), and it quickly proved to be a hit.

“It’s been up and people have been using it. People love it. They come down once and they see how fast things download and how much time it is saving them compared to when they are just at home waiting for things. We have regulars who come down once or twice a week just to download what they need.”

David Brown of Woodstock speaks about how the South Woodstock Country Store has the first of a series of planned internet cafes in the towns ECFiberNet serves.

Store owner Simi Johnson, right, said in the two months since the internet cafe has been up and operating, the store has become an obce during the day for many of South Woodstock’s residents.

ECFiber booster and former gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne of Hartland addresses the two dozen attendees Monday.

– Eric Francis Photos