Office of the Broadband Committee
Town of Halifax
PO Box 127
West Halifax, Vermont 05358

Meeting Minutes
Draft: March 19, 2020

Date:                 Monday, March 16, 2020, 7-8:30PM

Place:               Town Office, 246 Branch Road and Conference Call

Attending:      Stephan Chait
                           David Jones
                           Chris Lynch, Matrix Design Group (visitor)
                           (by phone) Cara Cheyette
                           (by phone) Tristan Roberts

Notes By:        David Jones

Call to Order

Tristan Roberts called the meeting to order at 7:04PM.

Changes and Additions to Agenda

None. 

Review and Approval of Previous Meeting Minutes

Stephan Chait moved to approve the minutes of the February 16 meeting.  Tristan Roberts seconded the motion.  All were in favor except Cara Cheyette, who abstained because she did not attend on February 16.

Old Business

Survey Results

Tristan Roberts reported on Front Page Forum that nearly 200 surveys were completed by Halifax residents.  Cara Cheyette said she had obtained two more completions on Sunday.  Tristan felt the town had come together on this issue, both in the unanimous vote at Town Meeting to form the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District (CUD) and in the good survey response.  David Jones reported that 9 or 10 respondents said they would definitely or probably subscribe to the fiber optic service.  Cost is a significant issue for some residents.  Tristan expressed the hope that the CUD can deliver service at reasonable prices.

Tristan said he had fielded many questions about the practical details of establishing service and how much the initial setup would cost.  He suggested the Committee will need to communicate reasonable expectations.  Cara said that residents are primed to get better service; we have their support.  David said Tristan had presented very effectively at Town Meeting.

Survey Publicity Costs

David reported he had spent $254.08 for survey printing and mailing.  He recalled Bob Teree had spent in the range of $50 for Facebook advertising.  This brings our total spending to approximately the $300 limit we understood the Selectboard to be comfortable with.  ACTION: Stephan Chait and David Jones will request reimbursement at the next Selectboard meeting.

New Business

Recommendation for Deerfield Valley CUD Representative and Alternates

The role to be filled is Halifax’s Representative to the Governing Board of the CUD.  In addition, one or more Alternates should be named to ensure that Halifax has a vote at each Governing Board meeting. The appointments are for one year.  David Jones likened the Governing Board function to that of a corporate or institutional Board of Directors, e.g., setting policy, ensuring that operational plans are aligned with policy, and providing oversight of operational execution.  Entities other than the Governing Board do the operational and staff work that the Governing Board oversees.  The Representative needs to be available for regular monthly meetings and any ad-hoc meetings.  The Alternates can also attend meetings but only one vote can be cast per town.

Tristan Roberts and Cara Cheyette asked if there were CUD committees or other assignments needing volunteers.  David said the CUD intends to draw on volunteer resources but hasn’t yet determined how this will be structured.

Tristan Roberts moved that the Committee should recommend that David Jones should be the Representative and Tristan Roberts and Stephan Chait should be the Alternates.  Cara Cheyette seconded the motion.  All present agreed.

ACTION: Tristan will communicate this recommendation to the Selectboard. 

CUD Financing

We had carried this item on the agenda for several meetings, awaiting a good time to discuss it.  Cara Cheyette said she had many questions about how the CUD will finance its operations but this will require an extended conversation that might be better held at some future time.  Tristan Roberts said he also wants to understand this topic better and trusts it will come up in due course.

Next Committee Action Targets

Having succeeded at getting the Town’s support for the CUD vote and the survey, the Committee considered where to focus its attention next.

David Jones suggested that Committee members may wish to conduct the mobile drive test designed by the Public Service Department to document the actual level of mobile wireless service available here.  The test is executed by driving every town road (about 70 miles) at 20 mph.  Test gear measures signal strength every 1,000 feet.  The data provide a map of signal strength that is much more realistic that vendor claims.  In addition, the Department has designed a method of measuring fixed wireless (VTEL) signal strength using a pole-mounted antenna.  This test can be performed at the same time as the mobile test.

Stephan Chait asked whether this testing is truly related to our focus on Broadband.  David conceded the mobile signal test was not related to broadband but the topic of mobile signal strength was mentioned by several survey respondents.  Tristan Roberts said VTEL’s signal strength is disappointing.  ACTION: David will coordinate informally with Tristan and Bob Teree to conduct these tests.

David also suggested providing instruction on how to best use the broadband resources at hand now.  For example, he just learned how to do wi-fi calling.  Cara Cheyette said the committee would be taking on too much if it broadened its focus to include wireless.

Stephan asked what this committee needs to do to become familiar with how CUDs operate.  David said he was compiling information on ECFiber, Vermont law that governs CUDs, and municipal network operating model alternatives and will post these on the Deerfield Valley Working Group shared drive.   The functions to be understood are construction, operations, customer interaction, and finance.  ACTION: David will add Cara Cheyette to the contact list and mailing list for the working group.

Tristan suggested that we should write an article reporting on the Town Meeting vote, the survey results, and what to expect from the Broadband Committee going forward.  David said the realistic timing expectation was measured in years, not months.  Tasks to be completed include setting up the organization, getting funding, planning, surveying and remediating the pole infrastructure, and finally beginning construction in the initial towns.  Cara said it could be premature to report on the CUD before it is formed except to say the founding towns were acting to complete the formation.  ACTION: Tristan will draft an article.

At the end of the discussion described below in Hearing of Visitors, Cara recalled how ECFiber obtained initial financing through loans from individuals in units of up to $2,500.  She recalled describing this method to one resident at the Information Session that preceded Town Meeting.  His immediate response was, “Sign me up!”  There may well be 10, 50, 100 people in the 5 initial member towns who could invest enough to make a difference.

It was the sense of the group that we were unclear about the most practical next step.  Tristan suggested and everyone agreed that we should table this discussion for now and return to it at a later meeting.

Other Business

None.

Hearing of Visitors

Chris Lynch of Matrix Design Group noted an upcoming deadline for applications to the Public Service Department for the next round of Broadband Innovation Grants.  The deadline for submission is three weeks away.  The Public Service Department had reached out to Matrix to advise them of the deadline.  David did not recall a communication to members of the Deerfield Valley Working Group. Cara asked if there will be additional rounds of BIG grant funding.  Chris said he believed there would be.  Chris noted that Readsboro is using a BIG grant to finance a survey of its pole infrastructure.  A grant would pay for a portion of the necessary cost of a survey; the town would have to provide or raise an additional $20,000.  Stephan Chait said it was unlikely that the town has the appetite to spend this amount now.  In addition, we would most likely to prefer to coordinate pole surveys in multiple towns through the CUD structure. At a minimum, we would inform the CUD in advance to maintain a cooperative environment.

Chris also stated that Matrix has improved the offer it made previously to individual towns to provide service.  The speed of the basic tier priced at $95 monthly is now 100/100 rather than 50/50 and the speed for the higher tier priced at $155 is 200/200.  Matrix has compiled a joint proposal for Halifax and three continuous towns – Whitingham, Readsboro, and Stamford.   Together, these towns have 275.15 miles of road and 3,166 homes.  The average number of homes per mile is 11.5, which exceeds the 10.5 minimum that will support Matrix’s business model.  As with the individual town proposals, the towns would have to pay the cost of supplying the pole right of way and provide facilities to house network equipment.

Chris noted that Duncan Cable has provided cable and some fiber in some sections of Wilmington and Dover.  His experience with the Wired West cooperative in Western Massachusetts towns suggests that incumbent vendors will adjust prices to reduce enthusiasm for a proposed municipal network and this can have the effect of damaging cohesion of towns that are attempting to cooperate.

Cara said she had internalized the view that the CUD would be a nonprofit enterprise.  Would Matrix, as a for-profit company, expect to be the sole provider for the CUD?  Chris responded that he was skeptical of the CUD’s ability to obtain financing.  Bond financing can be obtained only after several years of operation.  David said the CUD can access subsidized loan financing that was not available to ECFiber when it began construction.  He also said the CUD could ask Matrix to provide any portion of the three basic layers of operation: construction, operation, and customer interaction.  Lynch said that the $4 million limit of VEDA loans would finance only a small portion of the CUD’s total network.

David asked Chris if the Windham Regional Commission had approached Matrix to discuss potential opportunities to support the CUD.  Chris said they had not.

Adjournment

Stephan motioned to adjourn the meeting.  Bob seconded the motion.  All present agreed.  The meeting adjourned at 8:25 PM.