Rural towns push for broadband Internet

ADDISON COUNTY — Ten years ago, fast Internet access was more luxury than necessity. Web sites were simpler, people purchased music on CDs instead of online, and YouTube didn’t exist. But times have changed.
Internet access is quickly becoming a necessity of modern life. In the more remote areas of Vermont, this has created problems for people like professional data analyst Ed Nelbach.
“I’m miles behind those with broadband access,” said Nelbach, a Hancock resident.
Nelbach represents his town on the board of East Central Vermont Fiber Company, or EC Fiber. The company is seeking a loan through a rural utilities investment program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With that funding, the company plans to run a fiberoptic line through 22 towns between the Connecticut and White rivers, including Hancock and Granville. After the initial cost, subscribers would collectively own the network, and they would pay for the loans, the interest and the operating costs.
The company is set to start building as soon as it receives the loan. Bob Merrill, the company spokesman, estimated that the first customers will be online about one year after the money comes in.
And EC Fiber is just a small part of the push to get Internet and cell phone access to underserved areas of Vermont. In June of 2007, Gov. Jim Douglas signed a bill into law pledging to make Vermont an e-state by the end of 2010 — that is, to extend broadband options and cell phone coverage to all Vermonters.
The e-state law also created the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA), an organization designed to streamline and create ways to extend access to the most underserved areas. At the time of the bill’s passage, major providers had little incentive to extend coverage beyond their established networks.
“Internet is not regulated like phone services,” said VTA Executive Director Thomas Murray. “(Internet service providers) went to densely-populated places. We had to come up with a different model.”
Since that time, Murray estimates that the percentage of the state covered by broadband Internet access has increased between 5 and 6 percent each year. By the end of this year, Murray says the Internet could be available to almost 90 percent of the state.
But even with the VTA’s efforts to coordinate the buildout of services, enhancing the existing structure takes time, and access to Internet services is still unavailable in many of the more sparsely populated and mountainous areas.
The town of Goshen recently received a grant to install satellite Internet in the town office and the town hall, but for most people in the town, a fast Internet connection seems a long way off. Goshen resident Jeff Cathcart has been campaigning for broadband Internet access in Goshen since 2007. He and Patrice Lopatin, another town resident, polled the town about their demand for broadband in 2008.
“There were about 200 of the 225 (surveys) sent out that wanted service,” wrote Cathcart in an email. He contacted a number of Internet service providers, and shortly afterward, FairPoint representatives told him that they would need to bring in an engineer and request a zoning hearing. Neither one has happened since then.
“As part of the commitment that we made to the state, it’s FairPoint’s intention to get service out to as many customers as we can, as quickly as we can,” said Beth Fastiggi, FairPoint’s Vermont spokesperson.
But in Goshen, as in other mountainous areas in the state, the infrastructure comes at a price. Fastiggi would not commit to a date for when fast Internet access will be available to the entire 247 exchange, which serves Goshen, though she said Dec. 31 is a “target date.”
“The last few customers are often the most capital intensive, and we have limited money to invest. If we can get Internet to 100 people, we’d rather do that than reach two people on top of a mountain.”
Still, FairPoint has promised full broadband coverage in at least half of its exchanges by the end of the year, and Goshen, as part of the Brandon exchange, is one of the towns scheduled to receive that coverage.
Fastiggi said the process of extending high-speed Internet won’t be affected by the fact that FairPoint is in a bankruptcy reorganization. In fact, she said it frees up money that will be used in the buildout.
Jeremy Grip, owner of Middlebury-based North Branch Networks, estimates that each mile of fiberoptic cable costs between $20,000 and $50,000 to put in place. And as Internet access reaches the more densely populated areas of the state, each new system will extend service to a smaller number of people.
While a direct fiber hookup in the home provides unrivaled connection speeds, this is simply not cost-effective in more rural and mountainous areas, according to Grip and Fastiggi.
Because of the high cost of fiberoptic cable and the difficulty of laying it in mountainous terrain, Internet service providers are looking to wireless technology to extend the areas that the can reach. This system is in place in Ripton, which has almost full wireless service coverage by North Branch Networks.
According to Fastiggi, a mixed wired and wireless solution is likely for Goshen. Fiberoptic cable will run up to a certain point in the network. Nearby customers will connect to the cable via copper wires, and the company will install equipment to broadcast wireless signals to those who live farther from the cable.
EC Fiber’s approach is more costly — its loan application was for $70 million, and its plan is to bring the fiberoptic cable into the home of every subscriber. This, said EC Fiber spokesman Merrill, will allow for growth along with technology — fiberoptic cable has the potential to transmit data faster than current technology allows.
But whatever the means, residents of Goshen, Hancock and Granville will be looking forward to the time when they can hook up to connections fast enough to handle the multimedia-rich environment of the Internet.
“It’s going to be a big step for us, and it will open a lot of doors,” said Hancock Selectman Jim Leno.

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