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Some Vermonters Are Still Stranded In A Broadband 'Wilderness'

VPR/Steve Zind
Sharon Sprague, Rebecca Washington, Rusty Barber, Shari Ross, Priscilla Sodums and Maggie Austin are still waiting for broadband service to arrive at their homes in Danville and Peacham.

The importance of good broadband for work and education has been stated many times. Yet, as many clamor for faster speeds, there are hundreds of Vermonters still without anything the state considers broadband service.

Rusty Barber’s house in Peacham is one of 601 – out of a total of roughly 300,000 addresses – that are still without broadband service. 

When he retired to Caledonia County from Atlanta, Georgia several years ago, Barber was surprised to discover there were still places – his house included – where broadband isn’t available.

“It was just a given that you had great Internet access everywhere. So up here it seems sort of primitive,” he says.

The people gathered around his kitchen table on a recent evening are in the same situation.

By the state’s definition, without broadband means they don’t have cable, DSL, wireless or fiber service.

"It was just a given that you had great Internet access everywhere. So up here it seems sort of primitive." - Rusty Barber

Most have satellite broadband but aren’t satisfied with it. They say at the prices they’re willing or able to pay, slower speeds and limits on downloads keep them from doing much more than checking email.

That means no streaming movies for some. But for Priscilla Sodums, who works as a field representative for the Census Bureau, dealing with a lack of broadband at home complicates her job.  

“I have to drive out to the Danville Library hotspot and mostly that works. It doesn’t always work, so then  I have to drive someplace else. I spend a lot of time just trying to keep up with the demands of my job,” says Sodums.

For Sharon Sprague, no broadband means a 60-mile daily commute to an office, when otherwise her job as the director of a bachelor of arts program for an online university would allow her to work at home.

“My employer would love it. They’d love to have me working out of my house. Most everybody else in this area works out of their home,” says Sprague.

Rebecca Washington is also in the broadband wilderness. She has young children for whom decent access to the Internet will be an issue in their education.

“Especially as they get older, they’re going to do all their homework using the Internet. They’re going to want to stream stuff and watch stuff. It’s an important resource for them,” says Washington.

"I fear that my kids will fall behind, or miss an important event due to our lack of access." - Anne Somers

Those sentiments were echoed by Anne Somers, who has no Internet service at home and for whom satellite service is not an affordable option.

In an email, Somers said that the school where her son attends third grade uses the Internet to communicate with parents and students about assignments, events and last minute changes.

“As a working parent, who disappears into ‘no service land’ at 5:30 p.m., we are often out of the loop and struggle to stay connected,” Somers wrote.

“Never mind assisting with assignments that the parents may need Internet resources for. I fear that my kids will fall behind, or miss an important event due to our lack of access to resources," she wrote.

Somers says she would like to further her own education using online resources, but that’s not possible right now.

Something else this group has in common is confusion over when their situation might change.

Most have spent time on the phone with broadband providers.

Shari Ross went on the Public Service Department website and found a map, but it raised more questions than it answered.

“There’s a map that shows ... yellow areas are those that are supposed to have a project in process. How do you find out what the process is or what the project is?” she said.

While the information isn’t available online, the department has address-specific information about broadband service and encourages people to call to get it.

Many of these people say they’ve simply given up inquiring. They feel they’ve been overlooked in the state’s effort to expand broadband.

The Public Service Department says the Danville-Peacham area will eventually benefit from a statewide wireless system constructed by Springfield-based VTel.  

No one seems to know when that will happen.

These people and others constitute a small number of people without broadband in comparison to those who have serviceable broadband speeds.

But nearly two years after Gov. Shumlin’s self-imposed deadline for providing broadband to every address in Vermont, there are still those who are stuck in the wilderness.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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