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Broadband Initiative Tackles 'Last Mile'

Gov. Peter Shumlin's assertion that high-speed Internet has reached 99 percent of the state has left some Vermonters wondering if they’ve been forgotten. That was the message from several rural southern Vermont towns at a meeting with the state’s telecommunications agency.

The Windham Regional Commission asked the Vermont Telecommunications Authority to meet with residents of the state’s southeast corner.  People from half a dozen towns gathered in Newfane, hoping for information on the roll-out of broadband and cell service in their communities.

Chris Campany, the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said people have a lot of questions.

"Towns are getting applications for towers and other infrastructure," he said. "People have seen the fiber optic cable being strung out on the poles. But there’s not a whole lot of knowledge about how these pieces potentially work together and what the end goal is and when it’s going to come about."

Chris Campbell is the executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority. He described a complex web of contractors, projects and funding sources working to bring broadband and cell service to all Vermonters. Campbell said his agency was created by the state to find the places where no projects are in the works.

"Our role is really to take the holes that are identified and try to find ways to fix them," he told the group. People in the audience made it clear that many of those holes remain in Windham County.

Earl Holz is on the Halifax select board and the town’s broadband committee.  His tiny town has seen several projects. One federally-funded company brought high speed fiber to the school. Another extended broadband to part of the town.  Holz said Halifax has just signed a contract with a third company to build a cell tower in the town center.  It’s expected to bring wireless access to another 300 un-served buildings.

"I don’t know where we’re getting to the point where we’re saying 99 percent of the state has high speed internet services," Holz said. "Those 300 buildings in Halifax alone eat up that 1 percent, so I’m not sure where the heck they’re measuring it. We don’t even talk about cell phone at this point," he said with a laugh.

Campbell said most of the state does have access to broadband now.

"People who don't [have broadband access] are not necessarily geographically distributed evenly throughout the state. The very last ones have not been easy." - VTA Director Chris Campbell

"Unfortunately," he said, "people who don't are not necessarily geographically distributed evenly throughout the state. The very last ones have not been easy."

Campbell said the authority has had to work out different solutions for almost every one of those so-called "last mile" locations.

The agency funds some projects and helps others get state and federal grants. It builds cell towers and infrastructure. It sometimes offers the use of that infrastructure as an incentive for providers who may be reluctant to serve sparsely populated areas.

In some areas, Campbell said, residents have joined forces to collectively persuade providers to serve their businesses and homes. But he said it's ultimately up to Internet and cell service providers to  decide where to extend their services.

Campbell said the authority has projects in Dummerston, Putney, Wilmington and other southern Vermont towns. The Vermont Council on Rural Development is working with many of those towns to build public WIFI hot spots for those who are still waiting.

The Vermont Telecommunications Authority website  has more information on projects, funding sources and broadband service levels around the state.

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