When Tom Evslin describes Vermonters' access to high-speed Internet, he doesn't sugarcoat their lack thereof. Due to the state's rural nature, about 15 percent of its residents currently rely on dial-up or satellite services to go online, as there's no other option, said Evslin, the state's chief technology officer. Such a telecommunications backdrop has become an obstacle to economic growth and a deterrent to companies eyeing moves to the area, he said. But that backdrop may soon shift to one that attracts such growth, largely due to federal broadband stimulus funds.

"Up to this point, lack of broadband and lack of cellular coverage in our rural areas have been a real detriment to economic development, to teaching, to a lot of things, and we wanted to close that gap," Evslin said. "We lag the nation because we're more rural than most states, and rural areas lag the urban areas."

And it's financially poised to close that gap, as the Vermont Telephone Co. (VTel) was recently awarded an $81 million broadband stimulus grant and $35 million government-backed loan by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The independent telephone company also is contributing $30 million to the project that's been dubbed the Wireless Open World, which will make wireless Internet available to nearly all of Vermont's unserved homes, businesses and anchor institutions.

Vermont officials have described the recent news as a "game changer." U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the USDA and Rural Utilities Service, said the investment will give Vermont "a critical piece of the infrastructure we need to prosper."

"This stimulus grant ranks among the most promising breakthroughs in rural economic development since rural electrification," Leahy said in a press release. "This grant will directly impact the lives of Vermonters today -- whether they are hanging fiber, designing the network or getting access to broadband for the first time. This is an investment in Vermont's economy today that will also help shape Vermont's economic future."

WOW, What's Next?

VTel will provide three distinct services with the funds, Evslin said. In a blog post titled WOW -- an acronym for the Wireless Open World last-mile broadband infrastructure project -- he noted that fiber will be brought to homes in VTel's "traditional" service area around Springfield, Vt., and wireless Internet access will be made available to nearly all of the estimated 15 percent of residents that lack "good" broadband as well as businesses that lack broadband. He also said there will be community training to "show how broadband can help find jobs, improve schools, start businesses, access federal and state assistance, and enhance rural life."

"When you first introduce broadband in a community, the uses aren't that apparent because all your neighbors aren't on Facebook, the high school football team isn't on YouTube, so you have to sort of jump-start the community," Evslin said. "I think we'll find for those communities that have been off the Net, that very quickly they begin to integrate the World Wide Web into their communities."

Speeding Up

Customers in the 14 towns neighboring Springfield will get fiber connections with speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, Evslin said. Described by VTel as GigE, the connection is more than 1,000 times faster than basic DSL, he said, and far exceeds the state's minimum standard for acceptable broadband -- which is 5 megabits per second.

The goal is to get the 15 percent of residents without broadband access aligned with the state's minimum standard. VTel will build a Long Term Evolution network -- a 4G cellular data technology -- which should be capable

Karen Wilkinson  |  Staff Writer