Middlebury broadband initiative could help area

MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury has hired a consultant to devise a state-of-the-art broadband telecommunications system that would serve the seven towns within the Addison Central Supervisory Union and — organizers hope — serve as a powerful catalyst for economic development.
Dave Silberman, a Middlebury resident who telecommutes to his job as a financial services company executive in California, understands the need for a high-speed Internet connection.
Many professionals need to send and receive large data sets and files in real time, Silberman explained. A solid broadband service is also essential to video conferencing and web meetings, he noted.
“You can’t do that on a slow connection,” Silberman said. “You’d lose productivity and end up being frustrated instead of being able to do your work.”
Jamie Gaucher, executive director of the Middlebury Business Development Fund, is spearheading the so-called “fiber-to-home” project. Gaucher has been charged with attracting new businesses to Middlebury and helping existing ones grow. He believes that offering more sophisticated broadband infrastructure in the Middlebury area would serve as a magnet for businesses and telecommuters who need greater bandwidth and faster network speed than is currently available.
“State-of-the-art infrastructure, such as good roads and excellent schools, attracts businesses to a community and/or region,” Gaucher said during a recent pitch to the Middlebury selectboard. “In today’s world, this also includes access to high-speed Internet or broadband. With more and more commerce taking place online, access to broadband can level the playing field between rural and non-rural communities when it comes to economic development. Unfortunately, the greater community of Middlebury lags behind many parts of the world, other parts of the United States and other municipalities in Vermont when it comes to access to this important utility.”
Selectboard members agreed, and gave Gaucher permission to use $50,000 in Business Development Fund resources to hire Montpelier-based Tilson, a professional services and network construction company, to help Middlebury determine how it could boost its telecommunications infrastructure to woo more knowledge-based jobs. Tilson’s services, according to Gaucher, include helping communities sort out the financing, operation and strategic planning for deploying “next-generation” telecommunications networks.
In his pitch to the selectboard, Gaucher said Tilson would be expected to deliver a report showing, among other things, how Middlebury and its wider region could achieve a “best-in-class” fiber broadband infrastructure, construct business models that identify specific conditions for success, and explain how the necessary capital and user commitments could be secured to make the beefed-up telecommunications system a success.
“We think it’s a fiber-to-home network, a fiber network across the footprint of the ACSU, connected to the schools,” Gaucher said of the suspected best fit for Middlebury. The schools would make up a “core ring” of the system, with off-shoot connections to local businesses and homes, he theorized. It would have to be an affordable gigabit network, he added, with a faster system offering quicker downloads of large files that are often shared between businesses.
The ACSU is made up of the towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
“We are talking 1,000 megabits per second, state-of-the-art,” Gaucher said.
All of this would come at a significant price and a buy-in from customers (who Gaucher called user-investors) who could pay off the capital expenses through their service bills, Gaucher acknowledged. We are talking about buried and aerial fiber optic cable throughout an expansive geographic area. But once the multi-million-dollar project debt is retired, the system’s operating costs would remain relatively inexpensive and stable, according to Gaucher. User-investors who move out of the area could sell their shares in the system to others.
“We are approaching it as a cooperative,” Gaucher said.
Building a solid cooperative would be key to getting such a project off the ground, according to Chris Campbell, former executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority and the Tilson executive who will be handling Middlebury’s broadband study. The ACSU towns do not afford many of the economy-of-scale opportunities present in urban areas.
“The existence of a fiber optic network like this will be contingent on the level of demand and community support,” Campbell said.
Such a system is not likely to become antiquated, according to Gaucher.
“Fiber networks are future-proof,” he said. “There’s nothing faster than a fiber network. It really is an investment in infrastructure today for the next generation.”
Plans call for Campbell to complete his Middlebury broadband report by early this spring. Gaucher believes establishing “best-in-class” fiber broadband infrastructure will give the Middlebury area an additional calling card when wooing businesses.
“For companies evaluating a move to Middlebury, this would be a huge component in attracting them,” Gaucher said.
Meanwhile, Silberman, the Middlebury telecommuter, currently receives what he called “adequate” broadband capacity through Comcast. But he believes more sophisticated telecommunications services would be a great asset to him and other businesspeople. He recalled moving to the area in 2013 when his spouse landed a position at Middlebury College. The family had to ensure that Dave had access to adequate facilities for his regular telecommute to work.
“We had to draw circles around areas and say, ‘these are the only placed we can look,’” Silberman said of the limited areas with sufficient broadband capacity. “Entire communities were not available to us. That included all of Bridport, almost all of Shoreham, most of Cornwall, most of Weybridge and half of Middlebury. We were very limited in where we could go.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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