Friday July 19, 2013

For years now Vermonters have lamented the fact that high-speed Internet service in many parts of the state is so limited, or even non-existent. Businesses and residents feel left out of the 21st century technology revolution as they're forced to contend with slow-speed dial-up or pay for the high cost of satellite, which still isn't as fast as broadband.

It's a trade off that many of us have accepted as part of rural living. We love being surrounded by beautiful mountain views and rolling green hills, and living in small-town communities where everyone knows each other and pitches in to help their friends and neighbors. Big-city folks fed up with the frenzied pace and cinderblock environment of their everyday life flock to Vermont for a taste of what we get to enjoy all year round.

The downside of all that wonderful quaintness, of course, is that it often takes longer for technological advancements to make their way here. And unfortunately that has held us back in many ways, not the least of which is the economic vitality of the communities we love and the exodus of too many of our young people who are so necessary for our future prosperity.

"The world is radically changing economically and I have been concerned for a long time that parts of Vermont (miss out on the benefits of Internet access)," U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said this week. "Some parts get virtually no service at all."

That's about to change thanks to a multi-million dollar project that will make Vermont the envy of the rest of the country -- even high-tech metropolis areas like New York City.


Advertisement

Some towns in southeastern Vermont will receive the fastest consumer connection to the Internet anywhere in the United States, according to Sanders. Saxtons River, Grafton, Springfield and 11 neighboring towns are getting upgraded to state-of-the-art broadband Internet access at speeds 100 times faster than average and faster than anywhere else in the country except for a Kansas City, Mo., pilot project by Google.

The Springfield project is being built by Springfield-based Vermont Telephone Co. (VTel), which received federal funds to build the fiber-optic network that will provide affordable broadband access throughout its 14-town service area. John Caceres, of VTel marketing, said the project is part of a $116 million Rural Utility Service grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The construction process is expected to be finished by the end of November.

According to Sanders' office, about 1,500 homes and business in the Springfield area already have the new fiber-optic connection, a number VTel expects will double by the end of December. During the remainder of this year and throughout 2014, homes will continue to be linked to that network. The other towns that will benefit from the upgrade are Chester, North Springfield, Bridgewater, Cuttingsville, Wallingford, Hartland, Killington, Pawlet, Danby, Mount Holly and Middletown Springs.

As Sanders said, high-quality Internet access is crucial to Vermont's financial health. He noted that the region once was a national hub for the tool-and-die industry but lost thousands of good-paying jobs as manufacturers shut down. Lack of Internet service has kept Vermont from regaining that economic vitality as the state ranked 35th in the country in terms of Internet access, according to a study conducted a few years ago.

However, Sanders said the state will become No. 1 within a few years, as the new high-speed service will become nearly universal. The senator said Internet access today is what roads were more than 100 years ago. He called the Internet a "21st century road network" and said isolated businesses can expand and reach a wider consumer base.

The improved service also will encourage out-of-state businesses to move to the area and bring with them good-paying jobs, he added. "Vermont may be on the verge of reaping enormous dividends from this historic investment in our future," Sanders said of the new fiber optic service. "The ultra-fast Internet offers the chance to dramatically change how we think about education, health care and business."

It's nice to be on the cusp of a technology revolution for a change.