Maple Broadband gets $8.7M for buildout

ADDISON COUNTY — The Vermont Community Broadband Board on July 15 awarded Maple Broadband an $8.69 million grant that will allow the Addison County nonprofit internet service provider to start building out its network as soon as September and serve its first customers by the end of 2022, according to ISP (Internet Service Providers) officials.

Maple Broadband Board Vice Chair Ellie de Villiers said the construction grant would fund about 180 miles of fiber-optic cable in some rural areas of six of its 20 member towns: Cornwall, Leicester, Middlebury, Orwell, Salisbury, Shoreham and Whiting.

She said the grant, coming indirectly from federal funds, will allow Maple Broadband to firmly establish itself.

“I would say it was fundamentally critical. We are a municipal nonprofit, but we are a start-up,” de Villiers said. “All the federal funds going into broadbands were really game-changers for all the CUDs.”

That mileage represents about 30% of Maple Broadband’s anticipated full network buildout of 595 miles, she said. That full buildout is expected to take several years and cost roughly $36.5 million. That figure includes design and preconstruction work, much of which has been completed, and the projected expense of initial connections for individual customers.

Maple Broadband officials expect much of that work will be funded by user fees. The ISP, as a quasi-municipal Communications Union District, or CUD, can also bond for funding, with customer fees again financing the payback. CUDs by law cannot directly seek town taxpayer money.

De Villiers said within a few weeks Maple Broadband should have a good idea of what it will charge to its consumers for service, which will include matching download and upload speeds of 100 megabytes per second.

Maple Broadband Board Chair Steve Huffaker has said since the ISP was founded about two years ago those customer fees would be competitive, in part because of its nonprofit status.

The Vermont Community Broadband Board award requires Maple Broadband to use the new funding only to string its fiber-optic line on existing utility poles to reach areas that now lack adequate service.

De Villiers and Huffaker noted the grant specifically limits the ISP from using the construction grant to run lines in locations in Cornwall, Orwell, Shoreham and Whiting that private ISP GoNetspeed (formerly Otelco) already serves or is planning to serve.

“The board wants us, for now, to stay away from where Otelco is building,” Huffaker said. “And Otelco has told us where they’re building their network, so we basically have to adjust our build plans to stay out of the way.”

De Villiers said Friday’s award still allows Maple Broadband to follow its core mission.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity and time that we and other CUDs find ourselves in. But at the same time the money comes with strings,” de Villiers said. “In this case we are only allowed to build for people who are unserved or underserved as defined by Act 71 and any routes that are considered necessary to get to them.”

Act 71, passed in 2021, created the Vermont Community Broadband Board and set aside $116 million of federal American Rescue Fund Act funding to support broadband expansion in the state. Most of those funds were earmarked for Vermont’s nine nonprofit CUDs, many of whom are, like Maple Broadband, relatively new.

However, de Villiers noted, once Maple Broadband is a self-sustaining entity in the future, it can offer its service on an unrestricted basis, creating competition for existing ISPs.

“In a couple of years when we have a revenue track record and can raise private capital, then we can go back and connect the others,” she said.

GoNetspeed as of Monday was also still seeking Vermont Community Broadband Board funding. According to Maple Broadband officials, the private company had been denied once and has appealed the denial back to the board.

GoNetspeed’s stance slowed the process for Maple Broadband’s grant, which had been expected as early as a month ago.

Fortunately, de Villiers said, last week’s grant still occurred within the necessary time frame for Maple Broadband to move forward with its plans. The ISP recently issued its request for construction bids and has been able to follow a timetable that will allow work to begin this fall.

Maple Broadband’s executive committee was set to meet this Thursday (July 21) to agree on a contractor recommendation to the full board for a Monday decision, Huffaker said.

South Dakota firm Vantage Point Solutions, which has done much of Maple Broadband’s preconstruction and design work, will oversee the construction phase, de Villiers said.

Despite the award, more ARPA funding from county communities would still boost Maple Broadband, its officials said. De Villiers hopes the grant might convince some skeptics about the nonprofit ISP’s viability.

“Letting the towns know it is in fact happening is going to help,” de Villiers said. “The other misperception some towns might have is that 100% of our costs might be covered by the federal grant.”

She pointed to the strings attached to the federal money, such as build location, and cited other ways ARPA funds could be used.

“One example would be using those funds to provide some sort of affordable access to low-income residents,” she said.

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