Group explores rural broadband for area

MIDDLEBURY — Despite a push for broadband Internet to every corner of Vermont, there are some communities that lack the means, the skill and the infrastructure to use the technology — including some farmers and farmworkers in Addison County.
A focus group in Middlebury last Wednesday attempted to address this connectivity deficit for farmers and migrant farmworkers, bringing together members of the Addison County Farm Bureau, the Addison County Migrant Farm Worker Coalition, the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, farmers and a number of people involved in migrant outreach, Spanish translation and language education programs.
The meeting, organized by Dominique Haynes of the Brattleboro-based Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, was one of a series that will happen across the state in the coming month as part of the “Broadband in Vulnerable Vermont Communities” study, a report commissioned by the Vermont Department of Public Service. The study seeks to identify shortfalls in access to a speedy connection (in contrast with the slower dial-up technology) and possible solutions.
Andrea Ochs, vice president of the Addison County Farm Bureau, which co-sponsored the focus group, said the meeting was a step toward bringing digital resources to farmers in the county who currently do not have access.
“Anything we can do to help the farmers and their workers is always a positive thing,” said Ochs.
Cheryl Connor, a Bridport dairy farmer and co-convener of the Addison Coalition, also attended the meeting. She said she and the  workers on her farm have broadband Internet access, and that she can’t imagine trying to do business on a dial-up Internet connection.
“For the farmer, broadband helps with access to information … and the progress of your business,” said Connor. “And for the Latino worker, in many cases it’s the only access to home.”
Connor said that, in the quickly evolving world of agriculture, farmers need access to things like the recently released Vermont Farm-to-Plate report and up-to-date information on dairy pricing.
“For any business (right now), access to the Internet is so important,” said Connor.
Kevin Lehman, a planner with the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, also attended the meeting. He said he has just begun working on a local initiative to explore technology access for local industries like agriculture and tourism, in connection with other planning commissions throughout the state.
“We’re working to help various sectors of Vermont institutions better leverage broadband,” he said. “One of the key sectors in this tech field is to help farmers leverage broadband,” he said. “We want to help build communication and new business models around food and farming.”
But broadband Internet access is not just beneficial for farm owners. For farmworkers who are far from home, it can be a way to connect with family and friends.
“For the Latino worker, in many cases it’s the only access to home,” said Connor. “Especially up north, where some (undocumented workers) don’t even leave the house because of the threat of being picked up by (federal immigration authorities), it can help alleviate the isolation.”
Haynes added that Internet access can also help workers find jobs and access educational opportunities. She said that at the meeting, Erin Shea of the Vermont Migrant Education Program spoke about the struggle to reach as many workers as possible, especially when a limited number of teachers must drive to each farm in order to conduct classes. With access to online resources and technologies like the video-conferencing application Skype that require faster Internet connections, the teaching process would be made much simpler.
Haynes said the meeting was missing an important group, however — the migrant workers themselves. In the coming month, she plans to reach that demographic by distributing survey questions to them through people who attended the meeting.
Haynes said that in the coming month, there will be at least six other meetings throughout the state that will focus on a variety of potentially disadvantaged groups, including rural residents, the visually impaired, seniors, impoverished people, racial and ethnic minorities, the deaf and hard of hearing, and veterans. At the culmination, she will assemble her findings into the report, which she said will serve as a reference for legislators and others looking to address problems with connectivity in the state.
“The final report will be informational — it will offer solutions and recommendations,” said Haynes. “Decision makers … and community leaders can do what they want with it, but hopefully it will influence their thinking as they start to plan funding and grant proposals.”
“What we really aim to do is to make this all-inclusive … no matter where anyone is at on the spectrum of their (technology) use,” said Haynes.
She hopes to be able to offer a perspective not only of where broadband is and isn’t available, but of all of the other factors involved in facilitating Internet usage — access to and cost of computers and Internet connections, digital literacy skills, and attitudes toward the technology. This, she said, is an important step toward improving access and following up on Gov. Peter Shumlin’s voiced commitment to extending broadband Internet access to all areas of the state.
“Once people are connected through a technology platform, that opens the doors,” she said. “We just need to find out what the barriers are.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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