VTA sets goals for statewide Internet

Posted

Wednesday, November 26
TOWNSHEND -- Representatives from the Vermont Telecommunications Authority spoke Tuesday night at the Windham Regional Commission meeting.

VTA Board Chairman Mary Evslin spoke about the plans to increase communications services in Windham County. The plans hinge mainly on attaching smaller radios to local sites from which cell phone and Internet signals could be broadcast.

Act 79, passed by the Legislature about a year ago, required the VTA to come up with solutions for providing 100 percent coverage in all of Vermont. The group aims to complete the project by 2010.

Evslin pointed out that no other state has ever passed this kind of aggressive legislation and that currently 50 percent of Vermont's geography has no cell phone sites.

"The goal is to change business, education and life in the home," she said. "Teachers cannot assign children to Google Christopher Columbus for homework if only 50 percent of students have Internet at home. Seniors cannot be monitored over the Internet from home if only half are eligible."

"It's not an income or class divide," she said. "It's an urban/rural divide."

Evslin said that big companies cannot cover rural areas because it's just not economically viable for them to do so.

Therefore it is VTA's job to fill in the gaps, which they plan on doing by installing small, low-impact cell phone and Internet sites.

The solution, said Evsilin, is to use existing structures on private property and local businesses.

Windmills, church steeples and silos have excellent potential to serve as new sites, she said.

"We would try to make them as stealth and Vermonty as we can," she said. "It could be put behind a barn, and the VTA would pay the property owners a small amount of rent to host it."

She said that profits could possibly be shared with the property owners in 15 or 20 years.

According to the VTA, the network would be smaller than the big names like Comcast, but already better off because of the easy accessibility that the landowner's driveway would provide and the proximity of the sites to power and communication.

The technology would utilize software defined radios which, at about one-third of the cost of a radio from a large company like Verizon, would also need less power, leave a smaller carbon footprint and receive calls from any network.

The radios would pick up signals from most cell carriers, not just one.

Evslin used an example of a South Burlington mother who wanted to have a kayaking trip for her son's birthday but owned only one kayak.

"She posted on the town forum and went to bed. In the morning there were five kayaks on the front lawn with notes on them telling her son to enjoy his birthday," she said.

Evslin cites this example as just one of many ways in which the Internet can bring intimacy back into a community.

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Already the VTA has had 268 people post messages on their Web site saying that they would like to offer a structure on their property for the use of the project.

This winter the VTA hopes to finalize its business plan and contact various potential partners including the electric companies. The group hopes to begin building in the summer.

Test runs are already being conducted to see how the radios will work. There is a residential cell site in Grafton that is designed to run for a six-month trial period.

According to Evslin, it should be up and running in the next few weeks.

Others are being put up in the middle of nearby towns.

"We're about to turn on cell sites in Saxtons River and Townshend," said Peter Meyer, board vice chairman. "We're waiting for the contracts to be signed."

Both Meyer and Evslin said they feel high speed Internet and cell phone service is vital to Vermont.

"Mobil coverage and Internet service is critical so that (Vermonters) can fully participate in the modern world and economy," said Meyer.

"We need to have more broadband and cell service to everybody," agreed Eric Stevens, a resident of Grafton. "It's vital to conducting business and to everyday communication."

Stevens disagreed on the board's plan to erect nonfunctional windmills, however.

"That's the only misgiving I have," he said. "If they would put the windmills in places where there is wind, I would be much happier."

"I'm a renewable energy advocate," he explained. "I feel deeply about having windmills spin where they are sited."

This does not go along with VTA's plan to hide the sites out of view; often sites with wind are the most visible to people.

Despite a few concerns, most Windham county residents at the meeting Tuesday said they were supportive of the project.

"We know for sure that (not having Internet and cell phone coverage) is having a really significant impact on business people who move here to do work," said James Matteau, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission. "It's also affecting real estate sales."

While eager to see the change take place, Matteau cautioned "it has to be adaptable to the changing technologies."

"It's like electricity," he said. "It's not the cables being put up that's changing but what's going on at either end of them."

"When the wires were put in, our grandparents and great-grandparents could never have imagined what we're doing with it today," he said. "Communication will be doing the same thing, and really already is."

Jaime Cone can be reached at jcone@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.


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