MIDDLEBURY — Extending coverage to every last mile may be the buzzword in Vermont’s broadband Internet discussion, but at a meeting in Middlebury last Wednesday, the real question was “what’s next?”
The event was the first meeting of the ad hoc “regional technology team” at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, and it brought together voices from various sectors in the community to discuss what planner Kevin Lehman said will be a county-wide plan for increasing technology usage.
“Within our region, if we don’t step up, we’ll be left behind,” he said.
Despite the urgency, however, the meeting’s tone was less panicked than optimistic: Most attendees painted advances in information technology as a way to provide better services, communicate more effectively, and educate more people.
The meeting brought together representatives from a wide cross-section of industries that deal with technology, including business, technology, media, emergency services, education, tourism and infrastructure. With the input of all of these voices, ACRPC Executive Director Adam Lougee said the organization, like many other regional planning commissions in the state, will be drawing up a regional technology plan that will outline training and connectivity needs for the region.
Lehman, who is spearheading that project, said that while others on his list were not at the first meeting, he will be seeking the input and participation of other sectors in the community, including professionals involved in health care, agriculture. and adult and continuing education.
Those who were in attendance spoke of some of the struggles in their various sectors.
Regional planner Tim Bouton identified an ongoing struggle to incorporate technology into emergency and disaster planning, where quicker response times and real-time updates on situations could very well have lifesaving potential.
“The first response community does not access broadband very well,” he said.
And Jeremy Grip of North Branch Networks — which brought wireless broadband Internet to Ripton long before wired broadband was available — pointed out the struggle to pin down an accurate read on the quality of broadband and 3G cellular networks.
“There’s a lot of fiction out there,” he said.
The state is encouraging people to let it know about gaps in high-speed Internet service; people can enter that information at the website broadbandvt.org. The goal here is to allow state officials to bring that information to the various utilities that provide service to Vermonters.
But despite the struggle to build out broadband in a predominantly rural state, many at the meeting spoke of the new possibilities that come with boosting broadband usage.
Chris Kirby of the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury said he is racing to keep up with technology advances, and the library is actively exploring the world of audio and e-book offerings.
Like many others at the meeting, Kirby said training will be crucial in the coming years — training people to use online resources, training them to connect their e-readers and music players to make use of the library’s offerings, training library staff to handle a wide array of software and hardware, and training people in the community to actually be content providers.
Structurally, information technology also offers new opportunities for the many people in Addison County who live in towns without libraries as big as the Ilsley, Kirby said.
“We have a state library system that works largely with existing libraries, but we live in (towns) that aren’t all served by libraries — Ripton, Weybridge, Cornwall,” he said.
“There needs to be some rethinking of how we serve the citizens of Vermont in terms of providing information ... that will provide greater access to all of the residents of our county and our state, not just those that are served by existing libraries.”
Bryan Alexander, a Ripton resident, is a senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. He echoed Kirby’s endorsement of online offerings, and said technology will be crucial in revitalizing struggling American education systems.
“Education is going through an enormous crisis right now,” Alexander said. “But (technology like) the iPad has tremendous capacity to change access to learning.”
He added that digital storytelling as a medium — not just writing, but audio and visual as well — is a way to involve the so-called “non-geeks” in technology. Emerging online platforms like YouTube are designed to be accessible, and to allow nearly anyone to communicate with the world.
Dick Thodal of Middlebury Community Television added that while platforms like YouTube enable sharing with the world, the Internet also makes it easy to share within the community. Community members no longer have to wait for videos to be aired on MCTV’s cable television service — they can just head to the website and watch the latest selectboard meeting or the regular humane society pet of the week videos.
“It allows us to continue our mission, which is people-based, distributing by any means available,” he said. “It’s taking local into local.”
Roy Minton and Darien Lynx, who were there representing the technology division of eCorp English, attested to the need for broadband use by businesses like theirs, which teaches English with a focus on business to people across the world.
“(Technology) is as important for our business as it is for the economy of Vermont and the quality of service here for the people that live here,” said Minton.
Grip pointed out that technology has the capacity not only to keep people and business in Vermont, but also to boost energy efficiency, since Vermonters often commute many miles to work.
“Vermont’s long commutes turn telecommuting into a serious environmental issue,” he said.
Lehman rounded out the meeting with a pledge to tie the wide-ranging topics into a first draft of a regional technology plan by September. Lehman and Lougee will also meet with other regional planning commissions in the state to create a template for the plans — which received economic stimulus funding through the Vermont Center for Geographic Information.
Above all, said eCorp’s Lynx, it’s important to help people in the community to see the possibilities associated with technology — not just the overwhelming aspect of new technology available. Everyone, he said, is struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing times.
“These are emerging technologies,” he said. “We’re just starting this, but we’ll get there.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.