Nearly 90 years after the Rural Electrification Administration began bringing power to Vermont’s isolated farms, another modern necessity is on the way. Central Vermont Fiber has broken ground on the first phase of a planned 1,200-mile fiber-optic network intended to bring high-speed internet access to about 6,000 addresses deemed to be underserved by commercial broadband providers. Work on the network has begun in Calais, and residents there could have access to high-speed service by the first quarter of 2023, according to Jennille Smith, CVFiber’s executive director. “We started construction last week in Calais,” Smith said. “We’ll be doing strand and lash (supports), and undergrounding (cable) for the next two weeks before a deep freeze, followed by hanging fiber in the Calais distribution area.” CVFiber is one of nine communications union districts (CUDs) formed statewide to allow municipalities to join together to deliver broadband services to underserved populations. CVFiber represents 21 regional towns, including Montpelier.The effort is part of a decades-long struggle to bring high-speed internet to the estimated 64,000 Vermont addresses that have no access to broadband services or are limited to speeds available from telephone lines (DSL). Commercial internet service providers, such as Comcast and Consolidated Communications, have avoided running lines in isolated parts of many rural communities because it is not cost effective. “There’s a reason rural Vermont doesn’t have high-speed internet and the commercial entities simply can’t make a profit because there aren’t enough people, it’s too far, and there are too many dead ends,” said Jerry Diamantides, chair of CVFiber’s governing board. “We’re coming in to provide it, but we need to show (banks) that it’s sustainable.” As the global pandemic made clear, internet access is no longer a luxury as Vermonters increasingly rely on high-speed service for work, school, health care, and entertainment. “Our economic viability depends on bridging the digital divide,” Smith said. CVFiber has received about $27 million in federal grants, mostly from the COVID-19 inspired American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Thirteen towns in the district also contributed local ARPA funds that were matched by the state’s Vermont Community Broadband Board. Calais contributed the most at $200,000, none of which came from local taxpayer dollars. The pandemic also helped to create supply chain disruptions and contributed to construction delays on the project, but the pace is picking up, Smith said as a truck unloaded equipment at CVFiber’s warehouse in Montpelier recently. The not-for-profit CUD recently announced its subscriber rates for internet access. The monthly fee for 100-megabit-per-second (Mbps) download/upload speed is $79, plus taxes and equipment. That is fast enough for Netflix and other streaming services, according to the industry website cabletv.com. Other plans are also available, for example a 1-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) plan will cost $129 per month. Internet phone service will be available at $29 per month. Customer service for the new plans, such as network maintenance, installation, and billing, will be managed by Waitsfield Champlain Valley Telecom. Cable television packages will not be available from CVFiber. “We decided not to offer TV,” Smith said. “Streaming is the wave of the future.” The 1,200-mile project is expected to cost at least $60 million, the remainder of which will come from additional grants or from commercial loans once the district has subscribers and meets other loan criteria. It will likely take at least three years to complete the project, Smith said. It will be even longer, if ever, before residents in cities such as Montpelier and Barre can opt for CVFiber’s service. Those areas are not underserved, and the group cannot use ARPA money to build out its fiber network where commercial broadband is available. CVFiber hopes to complete the first 400 miles in the coming year. “The next phase is to focus on construction as well as set the stage for operations and work on public education and public outreach,” Smith said. Diamantides said the project has received support from public and private entities, including utility companies such as Washington Electric Co-op, Green Mountain Power, and Hardwick Electric, which enabled access to power poles. “This is an immense group effort all the way from the federal delegation, state government, and the legislature,” Diamantides said. Vermonters are also encouraged to visit fcc.gov/BroadbandData/consumers to review a federal map of areas deemed underserved. Correcting the map could result in more addresses being added, meaning more federal grant money could be available.