Vermont on the verge of universal broadband
A half-century after the isolated town of Victory became one of the last in Vermont to get electricity, many of its 64 residents hoped to have broadband Internet access by now — but it turns out the state isn't going to make its much-heralded goal of blanketing the state with high-speed service by the end of the year.
Town Clerk Ruth Neborsky, whose office in a former one-room schoolhouse isn't covered by the broadband service that arrived to part of Victory earlier this year, tries to get by with a satellite connection instead. But it's not fast or reliable.
"We don't have enough bandwidth to do anything," she said.
With two months left in the year, state and private telecommunications officials acknowledge they're not going to reach their aim of 100 percent broadband access, a goal first set for 2010. They are close — officials estimate that 99 percent of Vermonters have access to broadband services.
"We have projects already in the works for all but a handful of the remaining locations, and we're finding a way to reach the few that remain," Gov. Peter Shumlin, who two years ago pushed the goal to the end of 2013. "All of this is really great progress."
Broadband isn't just about streaming video or easy access to email — it's a critical part of modern living, be it online shopping or helping businesses share information across the globe. Vermont has received more than $177 million of the billions in federal stimulus money has been spent to spread broadband across the country, part of an effort that some have equated with the 1930s New Deal effort to bring electricity to America's hinterlands.
During his 2007 inaugural speech, former Gov. James Douglas set the end of 2010 as the goal, but that was derailed by a combination of factors, including the economic collapse, and almost two years ago Shumlin pushed it back again.
Vermont's telecommunications providers have been using a combination of wired and wireless technology to reach even the most remote nooks and crannies in the state, stringing hundreds of miles of fiber optic cables and erecting specialized antennas used to deliver broadband wirelessly. But the year-end deadline isn't attainable.
"Our original timeline of year end 2013 was far too aggressive, and we under-estimated the complexities associated with building a wireless network," said Diane Guite, the vice president of the Springfield-based Vermont Telephone Company.
Widespread broadband access has far-reaching effects, said Phil Lindley, the executive director of Connect Maine Authority, the independent state agency working to spread broadband in that state, where about 93 percent of the state is covered.
"We've had these anecdotal stories from places that have a lot of summer residents and resorts," Lindley said. "I've been told a number of times from those areas, 'when we have broadband our customers are able to stay longer,' which means they spend more money locally, which is good for the local economy."
FairPoint Communications, once known as Vermont's dominant landline phone company, is one of the key players in the state's broadband roll out. In the last few years it has invested $100 million in broadband.
"There are so many different ways to provide broadband," said FairPoint's Vermont President Beth Fastiggi. "To get everybody covered will, I think, in the end be a patchwork."
One of the creative solutions the company pointed to was providing service to much of the mountain town of Landgrove, population 144, after it ran a fiber optic line to a nearby private school. But Landgrove isn't completely covered by that line — and FairPoint isn't in charge of serving the remainder of the town.
"We are very enthusiastic because many, many of our properties are serviced, but we're very aware of the fact that those who are not serviced are just really out of luck," said town Treasurer Andrea Ogden.
When the electricity was turned on in Victory and neighboring Granby in 1963, it was big news. It's unlikely there will be a celebration when the un-served section of Victory gets broadband, probably next summer.
"I'll be very happy to have that connection to the Internet because my computer is important to me," said Sandy Hudson, who has lived in Victory for 16 years and uses satellite service.
She said living in an isolated community has many benefits, but "it's also nice to be able to get out into the outside world."