Included in President Biden’s “Internet for All” initiative, the Middle Mile Grant Program provides $1 billion in funding to projects that connect high-speed Internet networks to each other and reduces the cost of bringing Internet service to communities that lack it. Nationwide, over 235 applications were submitted totaling more than $5.5 billion in funding requests for the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program. Awards will be announced in the spring. (Press Release, Fact Sheet)
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA’s) Notice of Funding Opportunity defines middle mile infrastructure as “(A) … any broadband infrastructure that does not connect directly to an end-user location, including an anchor institution; and (B) includes, (i) leased dark fiber, interoffice transport, backhaul, carrier-neutral internet exchange facilities, carrier-neutral submarine cable landing stations, undersea cables, transport connectivity to data centers, special access transport, and other similar services; and (ii) wired or private wireless broadband infrastructure, including microwave capacity, radio tower access, and other services or infrastructure for a private wireless broadband network, such as towers, fiber, and microwave links.”
By submitting Vermont's grant application, the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB) is committed — through joining a new publicly controlled collaborative that currently includes participating Communications Union Districts (CUDs) and FirstLight Fiber — to acquire, build, maintain, and operate a statewide fiber optic open-access middle-mile network (Vermont Middle Mile Infrastructure) that will interconnect with all CUDs throughout the state to support the delivery of high-speed broadband service to all Vermont residents.
In collaboration with the state’s nine CUDs, and after identifying the needs of many of the state's major telecommunication companies (FirstLight, Consolidated Communications/Fidium Fiber, WCVT, and VTel), the VCBB developed a comprehensive proposal for a statewide middle mile network with significant cross-sector benefits, which will leverage previously built state fiber that was transferred to the CUDs in late 2021.
The grant request was for a total of $67,445,239.49 to construct and maintain a 1,663-mile, $114 million fiber-optic middle-mile network throughout Vermont. This project will leverage 347 miles of Indefeasible right of use (IRU) — a telecommunications lease permanent contractual agreement that cannot be undone — as well as 209 miles of existing fiber; 1,107 miles of fiber will be new construction. The request was backed by a match of $46,719,342 in public and private contributions.
- The grant request of $67,445,239.49 is to construct and maintain a 1,663-mile $114,164,581.49 fiber-optic middle-mile network throughout Vermont.
- This project will leverage 347 miles of IRUs as well as 209 miles of existing fiber; 1,107 miles of fiber will be new construction.
- The middle-mile network will support reliable Internet access to households throughout Vermont, including in the most rural areas of the state.
- This project will be a dark fiber network that will be capable of delivering gigabit symmetrical service to at least 224 critical community anchor institutions within 1,000 feet of the proposed network routes.
- This grant funding will permit the VCBB to deploy comprehensive middle-mile connectivity throughout the state in just 60 months (with construction expected to begin post-award in 2023). Last-mile infrastructure would be built at the same time, reducing overall costs and expediting connections to homes and businesses.
- The Vermont Middle Mile Infrastructure Project and the resulting network will be managed by a new Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), a separate legal entity with majority public control for the purpose of constructing, owning, and operating the network composed of the CUDs and private partners providing Indefeasible Rights of Use (IRUs) to their networks. Vermont has used SPVs effectively with its shared electric utility substations and the same model will be used for this shared telecommunications asset.
- The application includes $46,719,342 in a non-federal match, composed of $30 million in cash committed by Governor Scott to be included in the budget, $864,896 in cash contributed by FirstLight, and $15,854,446 in in-kind contributions from FirstLight, NEK Broadband, and ECFiber including previously constructed state fiber.
- Reduced Costs and Improved Affordability
If received, the grant will also fund network construction that would otherwise need to be completed by the CUDs using ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) and BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program) funding. As a result, this project will reduce the overall cost that will need to be funded by financing via municipal bonds. This reduction in capital costs from non-grant sources combined with the reduction in the cost of backhaul into the state will reduce the end cost to businesses and residents, increasing access to remote learning, energy equity, and telehealth opportunities.
- Increased Redundancy and Resiliency
The resulting network will increase the redundancy and resiliency of the networks being built by the CUDs, as well as existing privately owned networks. This increases up-time and improves the resiliency of the entire network to natural and man-made disasters.
- Public Safety
The proposal will address public safety concerns related to e911 call failures caused by some existing hubs that only have one fiber optic feed. The proposal is designed to ensure a minimum of two geographically separate feeds for each hub. The proposed project will eliminate host isolation issues experienced by incumbent telecom providers.
- Energy and Climate
The network will further the goal of providing for connections to all renewable energy locations over 150 kW, increasing the resiliency of the electric grid. The improved access to fiber will also increase energy equity by allowing all Vermonters access to various renewable energy and efficiency programs.
By providing ubiquitous fiber throughout the state, this effort will enable the Agency of Transportation (AOT) to replace less than reliable and limited bandwidth connections to the 55 road weather information systems; provide secure and reliable network connections to vehicle probe systems for public safety at border checkpoints; provide reliable connectivity and expand road messaging systems; enable electric vehicle charging – chargers at every interchange as well as every 25 miles on the interstate; support Vermont’s micro-transit models, which includes ride-share and real-time pickup; improve data connections for Vermont’s scale and commercial screening stations – 64 total; and provide reliable connectivity to AOT garages and offices across the state – currently, some have poor connections, such as the Newport customer office.
- Additional Benefits
The VCBB’s approach of combining newly built infrastructure with additional, low-cost, public rights to both the new and existing infrastructure from for-profit partners will open a world of opportunities for increased collaboration around digital equity efforts and resource sharing at a lower cost between libraries, schools, and healthcare facilities. In the future, when existing contracts expire, the network will also provide a lower-cost public option for the state. Partners also expect to deploy last-mile distribution infrastructure on the poles at the same time as construction to reduce costs and expedite deployment.
- “This Middle-Mile grant represents an opportunity for us to invest even more public money in our community fiber networks, reducing their need to go to the bond market. It would enable us to connect different Districts together, and then to internet hubs in more connected areas beyond the borders of our state. This network provides Vermont a once in a generation opportunity to build a comprehensive state-wide reliable and resilient backbone to ensure we can withstand future weather events, handle new demands for electricity and enable smart transportation systems. Above all, it would accelerate our plan to achieve universal service, at rates Vermonters can afford.” – Governor Phil Scott
- “With a Middle Mile Grant from the NTIA, Vermont would reduce both the capital costs from non-grant sources in deploying broadband infrastructure as well as the cost of backhaul into the state. The result would be a reduction in the expense for broadband connectivity to both businesses and residents and an acceleration in the timeline for achieving universal access to broadband services.” – Representatives Tim Briglin and Laura Sibilia, Co-Chairs House Energy and Technology Committee
- "This middle mile grant application showcases Vermont at its best - diverse stakeholders such as CUDs and for-profit companies coming together and contributing their expertise, insights and skills to collaborate on a plan that is directed at promoting the public good. The Vermont Community Broadband Board was created to make this kind of breakthrough happen.” said June Tierney, Commissioner of Public Service.
- “NEK Broadband is pleased to provide in-kind match fiber-optic cable network in support of the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB)'s middle-mile grant application. A successful application will build a middle-mile network throughout Vermont that will decrease overall costs and increase opportunities for regional and statewide growth, providing residents with added educational opportunities, job availability, and healthcare access. “ – Christa Shute, Executive Director, NEK Broadband
- “The 24 member towns of the Deerfield Valley CUD recognize the value of a coherent statewide fiber backbone of the highest capacity to provide the resiliency of the internet services we require. The redundancy of the Middle Mile Plan insures against point failures interrupting service in our network. If awarded, this Middle Mile Grant will enable DVFiber and other CUDs in Vermont to connect their underserved locations more quickly.” – Steven John, Chair of DVFiber
- "ECFiber's existing network will provide some of the middle mile backbone and will greatly benefit our buildout in the eight new towns which joined the District in 2020. The prospect of being able to share network resiliency practices with our younger sibling CUDs is promising as well." - F.X. Flinn, Chair, ECFiber
- “Maple Broadband supports this application because a reduction in capital expense for middle mile infrastructure will enable us to achieve our goal of providing high speed broadband to every address in our district faster and with less debt.” – Ellie de Villiers, Maple Broadband Executive Director
- '“While the project will not provide direct connections to our roughly 30,000 locations, it will benefit them and the communities by interconnecting with a redundant statewide network and greatly decreasing the buildout timeline. We are excited to support this project and look forward to the collaborative efforts of the CUDs, the VCBB, and the private providers involved.” – Sean Kio – Executive Director, NW FiberWorx
- “Fidium Fiber is for more fiber! We know how critical broadband infrastructure is for our economy, our community and society, and we are excited to do our part to support this important statewide initiative.” - Erik Garr, President, Fidium Fiber
- “At VTel we think Christine Hallquist and the VCBB and DPS have done a great job with this new application for federal NTIA Middle Mile broadband funds. Inviting private fiber owners and municipally owned CUD’s to each contribute hundreds of miles of unused fiber strands into a statewide fiber bank, to enable mile-for-mile fiber trades, is a great concept. For our small company, this could help us reach dozens and even hundreds of new broadband destinations and wireless sites” Dr. Michel Guité, President, Vermont Telephone Co., Inc. / VTel Wireless, Inc.