Summer is nearly upon us at VETRO headquarters in Portland, ME, and we can almost taste it. As we look forward to sunshine and lobster rolls we also thought we’d take a look back at the last month of VETRO news, with our customers taking centerstage. Let’s check in on Wessex Internet, Empower Internet, and Choptank Fiber to see what moves they’ve made this spring, and where they’ll take their VETRO FiberMap subscription this year.
While high-speed internet service is nothing new for the Dorset, England-based ISP, the team over at Wessex Internet recently secured a £14 million ($17 million USD) government contract to build gigabit-capable broadband in rural communities across the New Forest. Located in Southern England, the New Forest is a large national park comprising pastures, forests, and heathlands, designated a Royal Forest by William the Conqueror nearly 1,000 years ago.
While the peasant farmers of medieval Britain may have marveled at even the concept of a lightning-fast broadband network in their country forest, this is business as usual at Wessex. This is their second grant in as many years from Project Gigabit, a government program aiming to provide broadband internet access to rural and difficult to reach communities across the UK. In August of last year, Wessex won an award which helped them connect more than 7,000 homes to high-speed gigabit broadband.
Working closely with Forestry England and the stewards (known locally as verderers) of the New Forest, Wessex is expected to begin construction before the year is out. Not only is this project a boon for rural communities in the UK, it checks a few boxes on the Prime Minister’s to-do list as well.
“Thanks to this latest multi-million pound contract for the New Forest,” said Digital Infrastructure Minister Julia Lopez, “Thousands of hard-to-reach homes and businesses in this stunning area will benefit from a state-of-the-art network ready to provide the speed and reliability we will all need in the decades ahead. The Prime Minister put growing the economy as one of his top five priorities, and this investment will go far in delivering on that mission here in the New Forest.”
Wessex Internet CEO Hector Gibson Fleming espoused the scope and scale of the project in a press release last month, citing the “hard work and dedication of our team” to make it possible.
“We’re delighted to be awarded our second contract under Project Gigabit,” Fleming said. “This is great news for homes and businesses in the New Forest, who will now be able to access world-class connectivity and the many economic and social benefits it provides. We’ll work closely with the residents and communities across this beautiful national park to deliver this exciting programme.”
VETRO FiberMap will be with Wessex at every step of the rollout, and we’re excited to see how the project is implemented in the coming month.
Empower Broadband – by Craighead Electric
Back in the States, we looked in on longtime VETRO customer Empower Broadband. The broadband arm of Arkansas-based Craighead Electric, Empower first started delivering fiber back in 2018. CEO Jeremiah Sloan realized that almost 50% of Craighead’s membership lacked access to high-speed internet, which led to the creation of an ISP called Empower.
“Fast forward to today,” said Sloan in an interview with the LightReading broadband newsletter. “And we’ve got about 4,000 miles of fiber, and we have 13,000 subscribers and roughly 25,000 premises passed.”
Empower’s primary mission?
“We want to make Arkansas the most connected state in the country.”
Sloan and Craighead took wide swings at that mission in May of 2022, when they announced the formation of Diamond State Networks, a middle-mile provider which unites a handful of Arkansas electric coops to deliver broadband to rural Arkansas. Diamond State Networks aims to offer local internet service providers better capacity to deliver their services, and better opportunities to directly serve local business with a reliable connection, wherever they are across the Diamond State.
So what’s next for Craighead? Sloan says that, while government funding is a hope for the future, Craighead is trying to strike a balance between availability of funds and an immediate need for broadband access.
“If those federal programs align with what we’re trying to do in the state of Arkansas, then we want to pursue them,” says Sloan. “We also know that the need is now. So it’s a balancing act – making sure that you’re well-positioned to receive the funding, but not making it so waiting on those funds is holding up your mission.”
A VETRO customer since the very beginning, Craighead is poised to make a real difference in the connectivity of rural Arkansans, now and in the coming years.
Let’s move back to the coast – just a quick jaunt down Rte 1 from Portland – to Denton, Maryland-based Choptank Electric Cooperative. Along with their subsidiary, Choptank Fiber, the 85 year old electric cooperative was recently awarded more than $15 million in state funding for network infrastructure. These grants will enable Choptank to deliver high-speed broadband to more than 3,300 homes up and down the Eastern Shore, including Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Wicomico, and Worcester counties.
A VETRO customer since 2019, Choptank’s growth has been a joy to watch. From their first connection in early 2021, to their recent funding award, Choptank has made broadband service available to nearly 5,000 previously unserved households and businesses in coastal Maryland. Their four year goal? Reaching 10,000 previously unserved families, leveraging a combined $80 million in state and local funding to do so.
“I appreciate that Governor Moore and his team recognize the unique progress Choptank is making as we connect these families to broadband service,” said President and CEO Mike Malandro in a Choptank press release. “With this tremendous new grant, we will continue to change lives and bring the unserved into the world of broadband.
Choptank is one of only five Eastern Shore companies that has been awarded funding in 2023.
“When we created the broadband affiliate, we expected our buildout to take much longer,” said Malandro. “Funding from government partners at the state and local level and our ability to leverage those funds is allowing us to stock fiber supplies and hire local contractors to deliver faster than any other company on the Shore.”
VP Tim McGaha has cited Choptank’s exponential growth as a major reason they’ve been able to upgrade service to their customers without raising prices.
“We upgraded our mid-level package from 250 to 450 Mbps without raising the price,” said McGaha. “We’re also giving all customers free access to CommandIQ, a suite of protective products that allows families to personalize their home Wi-Fi systems.”
Something tells us this is just the beginning for the Choptank team.