Gov. Scott said his administration was focusing like a laser on the state's economy to attract workers and businesses.
READSBORO, Vt. — More than 150 homes in Readsboro and Wilmington will have access to broadband thanks to public/private partnerships and grants and the work of volunteers.
Readsboro officials also touted some of the efforts of the Hometown Redevelopment Committee in restoring some of the shine to what was once called the "jewel of Vermont." Gov. Philip Scott on Friday was given a tour by local historian Al Scaia and greeted by committee Chairwoman Sue Bailey at the historic E.J. Bullock Building, which is undergoing renovation.
"This work demonstrates the value of working together finding common ground to a common goal," Gov. Philip Scott said on Friday.
"I believe we can change the way we're doing business, volunteers like these exist in so many of our towns throughout Vermont and are key to enhancing and growing the vitality of our rural areas," he said. "The last mile in Vermont will require innovative public/private partnerships like these."
Some 56 homes in Readsboro will be hooked up to digital subscriber lines (DSL) through Fairpoint Communications and another section of town will have its "last mile" covered wirelessly through a project with Stamford's Southern Vermont Broadband Cooperative. More than a 100 homes and businesses will be connected in Wilmington.
"The main thing that seems to make it work is the local participation, getting people involved locally and working with the state agencies or the providers," Omar Smith, a member of the Readsboro Broadband and Cell Phone Committee told the governor and other officials gathered in the Bullock Building. "That's really the only way we can these kinds of projects off the ground."
Vermont's connectivity initiative passed in 2015 created the Division for Telecommunications and Connectivity under the Department of Public Services and awards grants through the Vermont Universal Service Fund.
More than $550,000 in Connectivity Initiative funding was granted to target 466 underserved locations in a dozen towns including Readsboro. Fairpoint has received some $8.8 million federal Connect America Fund II grants, along with state and corporate grants to improve broadband service in the state.
According to Fairpoint, it costs about $25,000 a mile to deliver internet service and another $50,000 to $75,000 in equipment.
"There are still a lot of areas in the town of Readsboro and other towns around that don't have service and there's not current project in there so this is just step one," Smith said. "And we still have a lot of work to do."
While Fairpoint is running lines to one side of Readsboro, SVBC is worked with Avangrid Renewables (Iberdrola) to site wireless transmitters on one of its meteorological towers and possibly a second one. In 2014, it had first entered into an agreement with Avangrid to locate communications equipment for public safety — Stamford Volunteer Fire Department for mutual aid and North Adams (Mass.) Ambulance Service, which covers both towns.
"We're almost to satellite now but not quite," joked Robert Briggs of the broadband collaborative. "Now North Adams Ambulance can be in your community and talk back to their dispatch center. The communication has been paramount in improvements. ... Avangrid has been a good neighbor."
The height of the tower should allow coverage for a number of homes on the west side of the mountainous town with some small repeaters, he said. "We're really excited about being able to work with you guys. Readsboro said 'is there anything you can do to help?'"
Both town initiatives are fully volunteer efforts. The Stamford group came about in 2005, first using a wireless antenna from the school. Both its quality and capacity have grown in the interim.
"When we started the Connectivity Initiative two years ago, we didn't even know they existed and we were shocked to find they were providing service," Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications and connectivity, said. "Good wireless broadband service in Stamford on an entirely volunteer service."
Purvis said it was important to get local input and data to bring back to providers to "really target a solution that's going to the last-mile folks at the end of the dirt road."
Readsboro's group formed nearly two years ago to expedite issues surrounding coverage. They groups have worked together and with state and Fairpoint officials to identify underserved areas in the small town. Jeffrey Austin of Fairpoint said the last mile can be a real challenge and those local conversations are important.
"We partnered with the Department of Public Service several times, we've had 10 projects around the state that we've completed," he said.
Nancy Bushika, town clerk in Stamford for 18 years, said the two top questions asked by people considering moving to Stamford was first about the school, and second was about internet access. That was nearly dozen years ago, she said.
Wilmington resident Dan Burgess said the lack of high-speed internet influenced his decision to locate his business in Utah.
But businessman Dan Burgess of Wilmington thought this was all "too little, too late." He related his own problems trying to get a bonded line to his Vermont home and how he decided to locate a software company he bought to Utah, where he also lives, rather than Vermont because of the lack of economical high-speed service.
"This is the kind of business Vermont should be attracting but it can't," he said. "One of the reasons is because there's no broadband."
Scott said the ability to attract and retain workers in Vermont was critical to its growth. It's losing six workers a day, with the number between the ages of 25 to 45 down 30,000 from a decade ago.
"You think about what they represent, that's the workforce," he said. They work, they buy homes and products, raise families, pay taxes. "We need more kids here, we need to keep them here."
The state's institutions of higher education graduate 10,000 students a year. Keeping at least some of them here means affordable housing, affordable lifestyles and jobs, Scott said, pointing to the state's $35 million housing bonds approved in June.
"Wireless I think is the future that's why I keep saying we can't keep our eggs in one basket and continue down this path because I think something's going to change," he said. "We have a laser on trying to develop the economy here in Vermont and we welcome any ideas you have."
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