Sovernet in Bellows Falls. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Sovernet in Bellows Falls. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

BELLOWS FALLS -- The scope of Sovernet's new, $48 million, fiber-optic network can be measured in the sheer number of community institutions it has reached: 115 governmental locations, 108 schools, 42 health-care facilities, 40 libraries and 32 colleges.

Those were some of the statistics mentioned Tuesday morning as Rich Kendall, chief executive officer of the Bellows Falls-based company, proclaimed that the company's efforts to spread high-speed, fiber-optic data services throughout rural Vermont are nearly finished.

"It is 99 percent complete. We have a few mountain sites that we still need to finish up," Kendall said.

Later in his presentation, Kendall summed it all up this way: "It's a great story. It's a great Vermont story, I think."

He was referring in part to the company's origins: Sovernet was founded in 1995 as a provider of dial-up Internet access.

"We've come a long way since dial-up, obviously," Kendall said.

The company's evolution intersected several years ago with the availability of federal funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) -- otherwise known as the stimulus.

Sovernet landed $33.2 million in federal funding to build an 800-mile fiber-optic network. With U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., visiting on Tuesday, Kendall made it clear that stimulus funding made the fiber project possible.

"We were at the point where we needed to build fiber to be competitive and sustainable, and the ARRA legislation couldn't have come at a better time for us," he said.

Later in the day, Welch said Sovernet's work is a testament to the stimulus program's success.

"Infrastructure investment is essential to our economic growth," Welch said during an interview at the Reformer.

But the fiber project was not strictly federally funded. Other support has included $2.1 million from Vermont Telecommunications Authority and $12.2 million of Sovernet's own money, Kendall said.

Of the project's total price tag, about $6 million "has gone directly into Vermont businesses" assisting with construction of the fiber-optic line, Kendall said.

"In terms of the economic stimulus of the project, it's truly been there," he said. "The money is going back into the state. We've hired six or seven new, direct employees, plus the contractors we've employed."

Of course, there also is the value of the line itself. Locally, for example, administrators at the Brattleboro town office, Brooks Memorial Library and Brattleboro Community Television headquarters have praised the speed of the new Internet connection.

Kendall said the network has enabled distance learning in schools and can enhance the use of electronic records in health-care facilities.

Rep. Peter Welch visits Sovernet Communications in Bellows Falls on Jan. 21. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Rep. Peter Welch visits Sovernet Communications in Bellows Falls on Jan. 21. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

"The state needed this," he said. "The legislation was to extend affordable broadband to rural areas. We took that very seriously. We built a comprehensive network."

"They are using it. They do want it," Kendall added. "And (the demand) has really helped us bring these services to the state."

Aside from some concern about the cost of extending fiber-optic line across railroad rights of way -- a matter Welch said he would "be interested in learning more about" -- Kendall said the project has gone relatively smoothly.

"We've had really great success in the construction component," Kendall said. "There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in building a network of this size so quickly."

He also had praise for Sovernet's customer base and the company's 75 employees, including 28 who have been with Sovernet for more than a decade.

"We're pretty proud of what we're doing," Kendall said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.