Communities consider broadband proposal on Town Meeting Day

02/27/08 5:58PM By John Dillon
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(Host) More than 20 towns in eastern and central Vermont are looking to create a new broadband communications network.

The effort is being led by a non-profit group that hopes to connect the communities with fiber-optic service for phone, Internet and cable TV.

Towns will consider the proposal on Town Meeting Day.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Sound of modem humming and beeping)

(Dillon) Remember the bad, creaky, old days of Internet dial-up? Your computer reached out through the phone line and made the electronic handshake with your Internet provider.

This is still a familiar sound to many people in Vermont, especially those off the beaten path of broadband Internet.

(Masland) ``In Thetford, we have no cable. Most people have dial up, which is ponderously slow.''

(Dillon) Jim Masland is a state representative from Thetford.

He and other organizers of the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network hope to make that dial-up modem sound as antiquated as a horse and buggy on a country road. Masland describes the goal of the project:

(Masland) ``It's community owned, subscriber funded, high-speed fiber optic. And it's a remarkable opportunity -- businesses, home, for all of us in town - kids doing homework on line - to jump on board with the best that's available paid by subscribers, not through tax dollars.''

(Dillon) On Town Meeting Day, the communities will vote on non-binding resolutions that say towns could join together to form the fiber network.

The project would be financed through a capital lease. That means a financial institution would own it, and lease it back to the non-profit. Masland says the cost for a typical subscriber to get cable TV, phone service and Internet would be about $120 a month. He says the towns do not have to issue bonds, and that taxpayers would not foot the bill.

Masland says the model is tried and tested since Burlington has a similar system. And the technical consultant for Burlington Telecom is now working an advisor to the Upper Valley project.

(Masland) ``And it's exactly the same kind of network, technologically, that we'll be building. And it's the same kind of funding mechanism, a capital lease, that we'll be using to do EC Fiber NET.''

(Dillon) Project organizers hope to get people on line by the end of next year. David Brown can't wait.

(Brown) ``I was at the point where I was thinking I wouldn't live long enough to get off dial-up.''

(Dillon) Brown is the president of Manufacturing Information Systems in Woodstock. The firm develops manufacturing software for companies - products that are in use in 48 countries. With such a global reach, the company's business depends heavily on the Internet.

Brown has 15 employees, but he'd like to hire more if they could work at home.

(Brown) ``But we don't have the space here in our offices. We can't expand. There's no office space in Woodstock. And most everybody that doesn't live on the main streets has dial up.''

(Dillon) Brown said that in 1936 his parents voted at a town meeting in New Hampshire to approve electricity service through the Rural Electrification Administration.

(Brown) ``And there were people who said, `Ah we don't need that stinking electricity at our house. It will ruin everything.' Well, think about where we'd be today if we didn't have the electricity. Now in 2008, we're having Town Meeting on Saturday to discuss whether we should have broadband in Woodstock. And there are people who I'm sure who will come to that meeting and say, `We don't need that stinking Internet stuff.' Yes we do.''

(Dillon) The towns also hope to be the first major project to take advantage of the Telecommunications Act passed last year by the Legislature. The act authorized towns to work together to form community networks. The towns may also ask the new Telecommunications Authority for financial support.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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