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Ref: Group builds blueprint for rural broadband access in Vermont

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Rural towns bundling a blueprint for broadband




Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008
By Joel Banner Baird
Free Press Staff Writer

Using Burlington Telecom's municipal broadband network as a model, 22 rural Vermont towns are poised to pool their resources and launch a fiber-optic project that could go online by the end of 2009.

It's more than a twinkle in a technician's eye. Members of the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network announced Wednesday that formal agreements are in the works from Windsor to Montpelier that would bring the strength of numbers -- and attractive financing -- to universal broadband Internet coverage.

The group's leadership presented the project at a board meeting of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority held Wednesday at the Zampieri Office Building in Burlington.

The presenters made no funding requests but asked the state board for support with credit and regulatory hurdles.

Steve Willbanks, chairman of the Strafford Selectboard and a key player in the emerging network, said commercial broadband providers could not meet the needs of rural Vermonters.

"These fiber-optic connections are absolute necessities; not luxuries," he said. "We need them for our economical and cultural development. We've had seasonal residents tell us they'd move here in a heartbeat; they'd telecommute if they had access to broadband.

"There are people out there who would kill -- almost -- to have reliable broadband service."

More than 1,000 residents in his area have registered for service, Willbanks said. About half of the population targeted by the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network have no broadband service.

Tim Nulty of Jericho, who left Burlington Telecom in the fall to join the East Central group as chief consultant, said Burlington Telecom's business model would work well in a confederation of smaller, more thinly populated towns.

Nulty said low-interest loans would allow the $70 million, subscriber-funded network to achieve a positive cash flow in four to six years.

Communities, not technology, would shape the size of rural networks, Nulty said.

"Localized service is a huge, competitive advantage," he said. "You're calling on your neighbors for service, and you're serving a common interest. All we really need is a critical mass of about 25,000 -- or about 6,000 paying customers."

Earlier attempts to serve rural areas with broadband, including state-funded pilot wireless systems, have fallen short of fiber-optic's technical advantages.

The East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network, Nulty said, would permit an "overlay" of wireless coverage that could accommodate data or voice transmissions.

"It's feasible when you have an infinite number of antennae sites," he said. "Every phone pole is an antenna site. Perfect cell phone coverage, everywhere in the system, is one of our goals. And we can do that."

Paul Giuliani, a Montpelier-based bond lawyer for East Central, said the project has "only three moving parts": an agreement between towns; an agreement to design, build and operate the network; and a capital financing lease.

The latter procedure has precedence in towns' collective purchase of snowplows and school buses, Guiliani said.

"If this is a better mouse trap, maybe someone else will pick it up as a template," he said.

ON THE WEB Ambitious, new templates for community-based broadband are emerging in Vermont. Their progress can be tracked online:
East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network: www.ecfiber.net/index.php?sectionID=256
ValleyFiber: www.valleyfiber.net
Vermont Telecommunications Authority: www.telecomvt.org
Vermont Rural Broadband Project: http://vtruralbroadband.com
Contact Joel Banner Baird at 660-1843 or joelbaird@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com

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