Selectboard Meeting Notes – Broadband, A Tale of Five Cities

Brattleboro Selectboard oct 1 2019

The Brattleboro Selectboard learned the tales of five nearby municipal broadband projects and expressed varying levels of support for something local, along with many questions. Some answers will come at their next meeting.

The Work Today program is being delayed until spring 2020, the parking garage will get a new elevator cab, the DPW will get their generator, and the Town hopes to get some volunteers for committees.


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  • Preliminaries

    Chair Brandie Starr skipped her remarks.

    Peter Elwell said the leaf pickup schedule will be adjusted after they see how fall evolves. Dates should be ready by the next meeting. Also, the Human Services committee is inviting proposals. Applications are on Town’s website and deadline is Nov. 4. Organizations should come to the informational session.

    Liz M – Gallery Walk is Friday night. One thing is the planning department is working on a new downtown plan and there are several events for people to participate.

    Daniel Q. – there is a survey for the downtown plan, so if you can’t make it you can still submit your ideas. It’s interesting. Happy New Year to Jewish friends. Had a good time at Pliny Park. Happy New Year.

    David S – also, the annual auction for In Sight is Friday. The community equity collaborative met and have developed a relationship with Franklin Pierce College to bring people to town for workforce development. Lots of good energy, and hoping for good results.

    Tim W. – had a good traffic safety meeting. 8 am every third Thursday. Had a big turnout about a number of issues. It is early in the process. More participation is great. Come to the meetings.

    Public Participation

    And there was none.

    Brandie – I feel uneasy about this.

  • Water & Sewer Commissioners

    Steve Barrett and Dan Tyler of Public Works are here to revisit the proposal for a generator.

    Dan – the questions from the last meeting were about a battery backup option. Popular with households, but the cost is huge to meet our commercial demands. Might need a solar array. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then there was a question of fuel type. Diesel is cheaper – no tanks needed, emissions lower because it burns less fuel. Diesel option is the best option.

    David – thanks for the comparative costs and data. It was surprising. There is community interest for any projects involving fuel and we’d want these comparative costs.

    Steve – this is more of an emergency situation for us. It was used, from VY, and it failed. Now we know what you are interested in and will follow up.

    Tim – I liked the diesel vs propane costs. I replaced my oil furnace with propane a while back and you use more fuel. There are storage issues, too.

    Daniel – I appreciate you coming back. When I saw first request it wasn’t clear it was an emergency. I would have made a decision that night. I asked about lifespan, when we use more fossil fuel, we’re like a zombie stuck in a loop using technology we know we need to replace. There needs to be consideration of moving away from fossil fuels. I’d wager that if there was a renewable option available that cost more, taxpayers would like to hear about it. Point taken about the commercial battery storage, but the board needs to vet things considering our community members.

    David – it only gets used one hour a week.

    Daniel – and as we have more weather related emergencies we’ll use it more…

    $19k for a Generac generator approved.

  • Work Today Program

    Emilie Kornheiser of Youth Services

    Emilie – I want to give a quick overview. The idea was to provide some paid work opportunities for people who couldn’t manage 40 hr a week situations, for people in greater transition in their lives. Youth Services runs it and calls it Work Today – arrive and work as a temp for a day, get paid, and come back or not. We’re excited that in July the board approved funding for a pilot program. We posted the job description and advertised it widely. Lots of good feedback about wages – what they are and what people deserve. Many came to be employed. Partnerships with meals programs. We couldn’t hire anyone, so, with some regret, we’d like to postpone the launch of the program until spring. There was a good interview today, but even if we start now we wouldn’t be ready. Many jobs are outside. We’d like to launch when the weather turns again. The money is back in town pockets/coffers. It helped us get the job description right. Send good people our way.

    Board – thanks… usually our mics don’t amplify.

    Brandie – it is easy to say ‘why isn’t this up and running’ until you explain the legalities of doing it properly.

    Emilie – when you get a grant, the money doesn’t come for a while. You gave us funds the day after you voted. The most responsive town government! Worker’s comp insurance take a long time to get right.

    David – thanks. Not so sure there will be a winter the way things are going.

    Tim – this is an innovative program, and unprecedented. Our excitement got ahead of the reality, but we’ll hold on to the money. We’ll still have excitement in the spring.

    Emilie – we should be ready in the spring, if people send us applicants.

    Daniel – if someone wants to work in this program, how do they register their interest.

    Emilie – the Youth Services website has links. Or stop by Youth Services.

    David – you have outreach plan once it launches?

    Emilie – yes. We’ll likely have too many interested in working…

    Liz – and the job info is on the website?

    Emilie – yes.

  • Replacement Elevator Cab

    Patrick Moreland – staff would like to spend $52,500 on an elevator cab from Bay State Elevator. The transportation center elevator is 15 years old, it is the last year it will pass inspection, there is a lot of rust, the phone got damaged and the elevator was taken out of service. Had to close down the elevator. Do we replace the phone or elevator cab that we planned to replace anyway? This is a significant expense, so we asked Steve Horton to review the scope of work and assess its reasonableness. He was comfortable with it. The rust damage was alarming to him as well.

    Liz – will this new cab avoid rust damage of the previous cab?

    Patrick – it is not within the cab’s ability. We’ll have the floor wrap up the side to prevent liquids… the cab within the shaft is rusting out. Some comes from outside and some inside.

    Liz – external rust could be prevented with proper sealing?

    Patrick – we’ll put flooring that prevents inside liquids. People urinate there, and so we want to mitigate that.

    Liz – are new portapotties near the elevator?

    Patrick – nearby

    Liz – is this related to the staircase rust which was an engineering flaw?

    Patrick – eleavtors are better off when inside and this is outside in a challenging environment.

    Liz – sometimes they are inside a plexiglass casing? Any thought to doing something like that?

    Patrick – not at this time.

    Liz – it is one of the biggest issues and might be good to look into it before we go ahead. Or get a new cab and think about it.

    Elwell – you could defer this and keep the elevator out of service. I don’t know for sure about the elevator – but it is as it was planned all along. The stairwells were meant to be interior structures and the protective walls weren’t built so they get replaced. The elevator is not in the same circumstance – just regular wear and tear given where it is and how it is used. If you have concerns about casings, we can bring you info in two weeks.

    Liz – I’m happy with that response.

    Tim – one positive thing – the stairs are looking good. Will the bottom set also be replaced?

    Patrick – yes, eventually. There are four flights and in this last round we replaced two of them. We’ll go further down the stairwell in the future. Upstairs really needed replacing.

    Tim – I heard some concerns about the parking garage, but I don’t have the same concerns about it needing to be beautiful – it’s for parking. The lighting is much better. But it is a parking garage, so there has to be a standard of reality. You can’t eat off the floor. We park our cars.

    Nick Nickerson – it came to mind – is it feasible to put a camera in the cab to identify the urinators?

    Brandie – then what?

    – arrest them

    Liz – I think having more bathrooms would be better.

    Brandie – we’ll look to see where there need to be permanent ones.

    David – the quality of the cameras isn’t good and they are easy to block.

    Tim – and, we got pushback from people against cameras…

    Elwell – there are cameras everywhere in life these days. In all public and many private places. For security reasons there are cameras. As to behavior within the transportation center – it isn’t illegal to urinate, and we’ve made facilities available. People are disciplined in a civil, not criminal manner.

    Elevator cab approved.

  • Municipal Broadband

    Patrick – you have a document in your handouts that took us about a year to do. It was very interesting and required a lot of fact checking and research. We met with folks and communities to find out what they did and what they thought. I’ll give this a brief overview.

    This dates back to 2018 when we were asked to look at municipal fiber optic networks to deliver low cost, high quality services equally throughout the community. There was also the issue of net neutrality so the topic was in people’s mind. We began an investigation.

    To start, we looked at where we are today. (4,671 buildings in Brattleboro. 4,475 served by 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up – current broadband standards. 4,639 served by 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. – 2010 broadband levels.) 95.8% of structures meet this standard, and slightly more meet the old standard. Not all HAVE this service but they have the capability. Compared the state of Vermont, we’re better than average – at 95% vs 73% across Vermont. Grants for communities needing to expand were not really for us.

    We looked for nearby examples. We met with two municipal fibre projects in Massachusetts and a collective in central Vermont, and looked at Chesterfield.

    Leverett, MA – is a small town in western MA – about the size of Dummerston. They created a fiber network. They didn’t have much competition, but people wanted it. They tapped into backhaul service. The last mile service could tap in. So, it was easy for them to get going. They established a community standard – gigabit level service. 1000Mbs up and down. Really high quality service – everywhere. They wanted an active ethernet network – a central hub with fiber going to every location in town, rather than a passive optical network that get split. The cost of the project was $3.6 million. They funded it with a general obligation bond, and property owners will pay it off through increase in property tax, regardless of whether they use it. Every property owner pays. There are pros and cons, but Vermont doesn’t allow general obligation bonds. We need revenue bonds here. Leverret didn’t hire anyone – they contracted it all – backend services, invoicing, repairs… all by contract. They didn’t get into the business. They have gigabit services to every location, net neutral, and it costs $23.47 a month. Better than market and incredibly high quality. But we can’t finance it like them. Vermont may change its mind on this… a report due in December.

    David – the bill they passed this year said that if a muncipality hired a private contractor, the contractor could get the funding.

    Patrick – is this model appropriate for Brattleboro? Not currently. It is difficult to expect that a bond would be approved give the current level of service in Brattleboro. They’d have to accept a property tax increase.

    In Concord, MA – they had a municipal electric utility, since 1898. A central location and wires on poles to every structure. Repair staff in trucks ready to go, and administrative staff. You are most of the way there. They added broadband. They have about 16,500 residents. They tied it to building a smart grid for the electric network. By building the fiber network around town they’d see savings right away. They also provided themselves with savings on municipal internet use. But not the public at first, but then they expanded. It is a passive network. Not gigabit. They have 35Mbps for $49.95 month. 300Mbps for $89.95 a month. Closer to market rates. Where they shine is in service. People are happy. One lesson they wanted to emphasize that when you build a communications plant where there are existing providers you will get pushback. When you upset the apple cart for an existing provider they can be quite personal and quite pointed. They’ve been building their network block by block. Incremental growth.

    Is this a worthwhile model for Brattleboro? Not really. Adventurous to start a new utility. If we did we’d need to hire a consulting firm to put together a preliminary design, establish the business case for operating it, and assist us in aggregating market demand. How many will switch to this new service? That will influence investors who want to see returns. It is challenging.

    Next is EC Fiber. 24 towns in 2008 formed a communications union district in central Vermont. They were to build out all at once. They had most of the $91 million secured, then the market collapsed and investments vanished. The struggled, then got a million in local dollars, and built a test network to demonstrate demand and success. Many smaller towns don’t have much internet competition so they are ripe for this type of program. Hartford and Montpelier don’t have service, though they are in the union. In planning for the network, they avoided conflict with cable providers. Didn’t want to pick a fight. EC Fiber is a passive optical network, so they have subscription services. 25 Mbps for $66. $700Mbps for $149 month. Pretty much market prices. Net neutral. People enjoy them. Users would call it a success.

    Is this a good fit for Brattleboro? Maybe. There was a recent meeting to talk about grant programs and a communications union district for southern VT. There was a fair amount of interest. The Windham Regional Commission will put together meetings, and get technical assistance, and education. They (the district) somewhat protect the town from liability – if it goes belly up it is the union that defaults, not the town. People are starting to discuss this in this area. I think we should participate in it and learn more. It is quite likely that the outcome would be Brattleboro would be the hole in the donut, since we have decent service. Unlikely to have immediate benefits. But things change. By participating it might be the solution to some future project.

    The last example is from Chesterfield NH – they were empowered to partner with a private interest to build capacity. They issued an RFP to communications providers, and the scope was to address underserved areas of the community. Consolidated Communication has the best proposal. Consolidated said they’d bring fiber to every home rather than focus on underserved. Chesterfield folks passed a $1.8 million bond. Consolidated will extend fiber to every location in town. Customers will pay standard market rates. I don’t have their prices, but users will pay a $10 additional fee to pay down a 20 year bond. At the end of 20 years, Consolidated will own the network. During the 20 years they must be net neutral. What is nice is that those not using it aren’t paying for it. Those who want to will pay more than market rate for this level of service.

    It is difficult to know what the outcome would be for Brattleboro. We’d need to do an RFP for underserved areas. Very few people compete for Chesterfields business compared with Brattleboro, so we could see competition response.

    Finally, Burlington Telecom – the first fiber to the home project. $33.5 million in early 2000s. Much competition and the project struggled because competition could undercut the pricing. Nationwide companies could underwrite costs of Burlington service, so BT struggled. There were public funds used. $17 million. There was an investigation. In the end it was sold to a private company and no longer is a municipal broadband utility. They got $7m for the $17 they spent. That’s not a model we want to follow.

    There are obviously other examples. The challenges here will be the same – existing service, fewer financing options.

    I’ll stop there. There is a lot here. Any questions or reactions? Shall we continue with idea of communications district?

    Brandie – yes, having those discussions without us would be shortsighted.

    Daniel – grateful for the work that went in this. I learned a lot, and then learned about how bonds work. Paige Martin brought this to us. I was really fascinated by some of this. In your research, …

    Patrick – Leverett is well documented . It is really intense.

    Daniel – what impact did it have on the area. It sounds quite transformative.

    Liz- is it a wealthy community?

    Patrick – professors live there.

    Daniel – its cool that Brattleboro has basically okay internet.

    Brandie – mine is terrible.

    Daniel – the Brattleboro of the future, thinking of things that would bring people to town… I think young people would come if we provided something visionary. So I am interested in the qualitative and economic impact.

    Liz – Brattleboro seems good enough for the time being. A judge ruled on net neutrality today – states can make their own rules, so I’d look to our legislators to see what they could explore. I think that’s the bigger beef in the future. Some parts of town have better service than others, but surrounding towns struggle. We might get into another hub town expense by supporting surrounding towns.

    Tim – Fantastic report, and fascinating. It brings up so much for me. So many tangents to go off on. One thing I come back to is 95.8% being served by broadband. The minimum definition is something my business can’t deal with. I have to pay extra to get 10 up, which I have to do early in the morning. It takes a lot of time. When I see gigabit service up and down it is amazing. So part of the start of the conversation has to be what do we mean by broadband, and is it fair for people to pay more if they need more, and can we raise all the boats. Those are all good questions. Are these solutions in search of a problem? Providing much better broadband might draw people in, but we might already be doing that. The return on investment is another can of worms. And, my commonly voiced theme of what is the role of municipal government? We all agree to have a thriving library and safe roads, but when you go beyond that people’s options diverge.

    David – the role of government. I have a lot to say. The percentage served by 25/3 is not adequate if you are in any technology business. The better comparison is the higher level 100 down… and Brattleboro is at zero. Vermont has more… so people will be looking elsewhere.

    I’ve been thinking about his for a while. A woman wrote a book about the need for municipal fiber networks. ‘Fiber’. She did a CSPAN interview, too. We need to explore this more fully for all homes. Communications is basic utility. We’re locked into copper cable rather than fiber…unlimited real time communications at a much lower costs. New ways to do business, education, health… a handful of companies limit our abilities to participate. They have no competition and give second rate service. Private companies tried to slow national electric service, too. We need a public option of this basic public infrastructure. BT was a terrible model, but the fiber is still there and will be for decades. It won’t become obsolete. The expense is low compared to the return. We need to explore this now. Now. Whatever model we follow we need lower prices and better service. Clear reliable prices. benefits to us rather than shareholders. We pay more than Europe and Asia – $10 a month for fiber service there. Other towns have done this then use the backbone to communicate. We need to do a feasibility study to see what we have on hand and what we need. We need a clear, shared understand that it is the role of government to do this. We need public and private groups. Look at other communities. I hope we’ll move forward with this work.


    Brandie – thanks, Patrick. This really helped me get my brain in line. I agree with everything that David just read.

    Liz – was there a general conclusion?

    Patrick – less of a general conclusion and more of a … these are the stories of communities around us. Each of you has touched on the critical issue at hand. There are pros and cons to what we have today – it didn’t cost us much and it isn’t very good. Fiber optics would be good for businesses. The question is what’s the role of government. How important is net neutrality. Is there a problem in Brattleboro, or in certain parts of Brattleboro.

    Brandie – this is the first time we’ve ever have anything like this to spawn a real in-depth conversation. I didn’t like the Chesterfield one. For me, that doesn’t sit well with my palette. If we do something it should be ours.

    Liz – you need to call and complain to providers to make sure they are doing their job.

    Franz Reichsman – David’s comments are most germane. The elephant not in the room is what happens if we don’t do this. I’d go to Leverett to start business. Speed is critically important. A big mistake to not take immediate action. To miss out would be foolish. Look at 100 towns. There are many examples. There are many unanswered questions. I’d urge a well-considered way to move forward. That’s what you should be talking about.

    Brandie – can this be on our agenda quarterly to hear new pieces of information?

    Elwell – what you should weigh – you’ve heard both caution and enthusiasm – the way forward isn’t periodic visits. Either we sit tight and wait for a change, or, if you want bolder approach, you need to think of who to hire to advise the town about the things we’re talking about. I share the excitement for what it could be, but worry about the competition. Some expertise to advise us on how to go up against nationwide providers where they lowball this market. It is a daunting hurdle, but we need consultants to get over it.

    Patsy Cushing – boy there is so much fear right now, and so many things start with “be afraid of this or that”. Rather than be afraid, it makes mores sense to me to take a view that moves forward. If there are obstacles, you navigate – to start with the idea that there is something bad kills the momentum. And this momentum need to be taken. To rejuvenate the town, to encourage growth, and what is not talked about… for the health of the town fiber optic is the way to go. If copper wires continue we will see health effects. We need to do something safer, faster, smarter and less expensive in the long run.

    Emilie – as State Rep. I’ve been hearing about communication districts and there is lot of momentum. The expertise is happening at these districts. There is a commission to advise. I encourage you to actively collaborate and use the expertise in coming months.

    Liz – Springfield has good internet and it would be good to hear about that.

    Rikki – is part of the vision an open wifi network for people to use without signing in? No passwords?

    Brandie – hasn’t been discussed yet.

    Rikki – that should be a future goal.

    Brandie – I’m sure we’ll look into it.

    Derek Jordan – I 100% agree with David, and Daniel’s comments about the results. And Franz, too. I work with EMF safety for VT. I’ve looked at issues of wireless and fiber. We were active in bill 519 and got a health report from senate finance committee to study 5G. There are issues of economic development. It’s a huge issue, and fiber is more secure and more reliable, with much larger bandwidth. A city like Chattenooga would be a city to study. They’ve had great success. We already have fiber. We’re going back to the future on this one. It’s better, but not convenient. We support fiber to the home, to school, to business. It will be a huge economic magnet for the town. We’re losing young people. They aren’t staying here. My three kids moved away. Not enough to do. Having fiber would increase the opportunities. There is the health issue with wireless. We’ve done research. I was a sceptic on wireless causing cancer, but there have been peer review studies…

    Tim – can we stay focused on topic?

    Derek – one thing on 5G – in order for 5g to go in, in needs fiber. Fiber needs to be put to a telephone pole, which becomes 4G then converted to 5G. The bill that passed the senate is that 5G is a trojan horse. It allows telecoms to put 5G wherever they want.

    Donald Said – I agree about fiber. Could surrounding communities be brought into it. I’m in Marlboro and sometimes lose service for a week. Same in West Brattleboro. Could it be a larger circle?

    Brandie – that’s the goal of the CUD.

    Michael Bosworth – I’d worry about it being obsolete. Tim needs this, but not all. I worked on this for a while – broadband never stands still. You have to plan ahead. The town needs to worry about that. One question – has Green Mountain Power been approached?

    Patrick – there are pieces of (state bill) 513 that are seeking to motivate electric companies to consider this kind of project.

    David – GMP hasn’t asked to restrict people using their poles. That infrastructure is available.

    Michael – at what point do Montpelier and others get included when surrounding towns have better service? And, numerous providers in Brattleboro? How many? Comcast and Consolidated…

    Patrick – I don’t know them all – FirstLight, Verizon…

    Tim – 2-3 big players and some small ones.

    Elwell – the board needs to decide if you want to have another discussion, or move ahead. If you don’t tell us to stop we’ll participate in the CUD anyway. We can learn from the expertise. Beyond that, for additional next steps. We could talk with GMT, we could look at Springfield. Those are limited steps. You’ve heard urging to move boldly. That needs to be defined.

    Patrick – another thing to consider. If you would like to use general obligation bonds, you could convey that sentiment to those at the state level before December.

    Brandie – don’t wanna burden on staff during budgets, but we could talk again after December vote at the state level?

    Elwell – don’t let budget influence next steps for this. Seasonal workload would mean working on it in the summer…

    Liz – I suggest we ask Patrick to come back at next meeting with next steps that we can build on.

    David – Not sure Patrick can do that. Don’t know about that. The big providers will never have high quality competitive service. I think at the minimum we need to identify where are people who have expertise to help us decide what we want here. We need to now what that will cost, and to engage those with expertise.

    Brandie – could Patrick touch base with GMP and who would be helpful?

    Elwell – touching base we can do in short order. The CUD will have schedule of its own. The expertise… when you decide to get serious you hire a consultant to tell us risks, opportunities, and so on. Just like an engineer or architect. That’s an important threshold moment. If you want, we can start working on an RFP for an upcoming meeting. You’ve also heard Liz suggest other actions available. Based on the magnitude of this, we should do it in an informed and cautious manner. If we decide to be bold then, that’s ok. We need to consider these costs to get going. I like the idea that we bring you back the range of options, from too cautious for Dave but too bold for others.

    Tim – yes, but we’ll need more time. Let’s not start until we know what to do. We need to define municipal broadband, and what we want… needs to discussed before we send out an RFP. Brattleboro decides what Brattleboro wants.

    David – yes, and we make this available to everyone.

    Tim – and who pays for it…

    David – we have a ton of work to do before we get to specifics.

    Liz – I want everyone pay attention that the state is working on this and has expertise. Before we have an RFP we need to find out what the state has to offer.

    David – it will be very little.

    Tim – we need to talk about our community goals.

    Liz – and equity – if you live downtown you might have one level of service. Town shouldn’t pay for everyone to have the same level of service.

    Tim – if we think of the planet, we want people drawn to the central location of Brattleboro. We should be thinking that the inequity would draw people in and people could live anywhere if everyone had fiber.

    David – I don’t see a contradiction with someone using fiber outside of town.

    Tim – it encourages sprawl. We need housing near the center.

    Brandie – it is in the Town Plan and people are talking about it.

    David – we might want this to go to RTM for a conversation . We’re all over the place.

    Liz – let’s wait til the next meeting.

    Daniel – $60-80k for a consultant is a lot of money. There was the ladder truck… I’m excited by the idea, but is this the thing Brattleboro needs to spend money on with other urgent crisis not solved by increased download speeds. We need to make investments and be cautious.

    Elwell – based on this, we won’t do additional research, but we’ll frame questions for a discussion of what to do next.

    Daniel – maybe members of the public would reach out….

  • Bets and Committees

    (Board says they all lost their bets [on how long broadband conversation would go on?])

    Brandie reads list of committees that need members. There are many vacancies! Sign up! Talk to the Town Manager’s office.

    Obsolete positions still exist!

    Tim – not even 9 pm and we’re being flippant.

    adjourned at 8:32.

    “You win prize!”

    Liz – I said 7:45

    Tim – I said 8:37. I win.

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