E-Vermont sparks conversation

ADDISON COUNTY — The end of June brought to a close the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project, a venture that for the past two years has distributed grants to Vermont towns for digital tools and training to use the Internet to create jobs and spur innovation in schools.
But as the project wraps up, Vermont communities have begun sharing stories on how they can maintain and build wireless Internet access despite the loss of e-Vermont.
Vermont Interactive Technologies held a video conference call on Tuesday, July 10, to discuss Internet access in Brattleboro, Middlebury, Rutland, Springfield and White River Junction.
E-Vermont was a state-funded program launched in the spring of 2010 to promote Internet access in rural towns. Twenty-four communities across the state received services for two years that included technology education and business development to strengthen communication.
Since the program’s finish, towns like Middlebury are looking for new ways to encourage connectivity locally. Much of the discussion at the July 10 meeting was about providing more accessible broadband.
Addison County has already seen some major improvements in Wi-Fi access thanks to programs like e-Vermont. A grant brought public, wireless Internet access to downtown Bristol and a more recent Wi-Fi connection was installed in Vergennes. Planning for wireless Internet in Middlebury is also in the works.
This is a long way from how Internet access was merely a decade ago.
Ripton resident Bryan Alexander helped bring broadband to his town around five years ago by working with a group that introduced a broadband co-op. A tower located on the Battell Block in downtown Middlebury beamed signals up the mountain and brought Internet access to the whole of Ripton. Fairpoint Communications then saw that access was possible and later brought DSL connections to Ripton.
At the July 10 meeting, Alexander — who works with virtual organizations and in technology education and is on an Addison County Regional Planning Commission technology committee — said he was very impressed with the variety of methods used by the other towns and thought they offered good insight into how to introduce broadband.
“We heard from three different areas that had three different styles of operation. I was not expecting such a diverse set of approaches,” he said.
The meeting began with an opening statement by facilitator John Broker-Campbell of southern Windsor County. He said Vermont Interactive Technologies was tasked with developing a regional broadband plan, and the meeting’s purpose was to discuss the status of connectivity throughout each region.
“This provides outreach on the status of broadband in the region, inviting some e-Vermont communities to come and present on what they had done,” Broker-Campbell said. “It’s a great opportunity for other communities to come and learn about the e-Vermont project and how they can use broadband to improve their town government or town website.”
The meeting covered three different broadband approaches in three different towns throughout Vermont. Issues discussed include Wi-Fi access for local business and libraries, as well as managing town office webpages and encouraging community communication.
Jan Jones, the director and children’s librarian in Castleton, spoke for the town of Castleton. She emphasized the influence of broadband in assimilating the different parts of the town, namely Castleton State College and the other aspects of the town. They saw the library as the hub of information that could bring the town, Castleton State College and lake community together.
“We wanted to figure out a way to service the whole community and not leave anyone out,” Jones said.
The project has evolved past Jones’ expectations. Castleton now uses Front Porch Forum, a Burlington-based business that provides a host of regional networks for local residents to connect with their neighbors via online forums. Presently, there are over 300 local Front Porch Forum users in Castleton.
Local business was also an important topic of conversation. Dover Economic Development Specialist Ken Black said his town took a different approach and focused its efforts on making sure the town website promotes local businesses to potential visitors. Black additionally spoke of the importance in bringing Wi-Fi to the main walking trail in town, which is located near the Mount Snow ski area.
Town hall services have also been redesigned with new broadband technologies. Representatives from Putney spoke of the benefits of accessibility as it relates to the town office.
At the launch of Putney’s new town website, notices will be constantly updated on the main interface in hopes of creating a more efficient source of communication. The page will feature access to updated minutes from the town’s selectboard meetings, town records, and a possible bill-paying feature.
Those at last week’s meeting agreed that the challenge lies in deciding which of the three methods discussed will work for other areas, or if another possibilities exist that have not yet been discussed.
Alexander explained how the state of Internet connectivity in Vermont plays into the equation. Described as a “grey” state by Alexander, Vermont has a much older population than most states and has problems attracting younger people to the area due to issues like limited broadband connectivity.
Besides the statewide issues, Alexander cites Middlebury having a different situation than the towns. Unlike other areas, Middlebury has relatively good cell phone coverage and has access to benefits that Middlebury College provides.
Because of what Alexander calls the “town’s rich fiber,” it would be much easier to bring broadband to Middlebury. Despite this, there are challenges that lie in creating a more coherent community.
“I was surprised that they did not discuss the role of the community more thoroughly,” said Alexander. “The role of farmers is vital for Middlebury and we need to figure out how to engage them.”
The quest for more complete broadband connection continues in Middlebury through work by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission technology committee. Committee member Kevin Lehman said representatives from different public sectors, including education and media, have come together to discuss how to make use of potential downtown Wi-Fi access.
Planning is currently under way, and the group aims to complete the regional technology plan by the end of September. Potential educational workshops could come out of this plan.
“This is a tool that is highly implementable,” Lehman said. “It will help us to decide the best ways to make use of a wireless broadband connection.”

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