LYNDONVILLE -- Rural Vermont communities need high-speed Internet access -- but they're going to have to get it for themselves. That's the message of the Broadband Roadshow, a presentation being taken around the state by Jack Hoffman, director of the Vermont Broadband Council, and Lauren-Glenn Davitian, who directs the Center for Media and Democracy. The project debuted last week in the Northeast Kingdom. That's a long way from Silicon Valley, both literally and figuratively.
Right now broadband is a rarity in the counties of the Kingdom. According to Vermont's 2004 Telecommunications Plan, 95 percent of Chittenden County residents can access broadband, but fewer than a quarter of those who live in Orleans County, and just 10 percent in Essex County, can opt for a high-speed connection.
Surfing the Internet, downloading files or conducting any kind of business transaction on a dial-up connection can be prohibitively slow. Broadband fans say faster Internet will bring opportunity to rural regions that are struggling economically; Governor Jim Douglas aims to have the whole state connected by 2010. But companies like Verizon and Comcast, who dominate the broadband market here, have little incentive to extend costly services into the most rural areas of the state.
So who will bring broadband to rural Vermont? High-speed access advocates like Hoffman and Davitian are increasingly reaching out to an unlikely, not-always, tech-savvy constituency: elected public officials in Vermont's cities and towns. These community leaders are well positioned to aggregate local demand and organize efforts to attract service providers. That's why the Broadband Roadshow debuted at the 61st Annual Town Officers' Education Conference at Lyndon State College, a daylong event organized by the University of Vermont's Extension Program and its Center for Rural Studies.
The conference -- the first of five scheduled across the state in the next few weeks -- drew nearly 90 clerks, listers, treasurers and library trustees, who could choose from a variety of workshops on everything from property tax exemptions to the national flood insurance program. The only session everyone saw was the one on broadband.
Before they gathered in the Alexander Twilight Theater, some administrators admitted they weren't that interested in the topic. Newly elected Burke Lister Dale McDowell noted that he's been getting along fine offline for 80 years. He says he can use a computer to make digital pictures of properties he sells as a real estate agent. "As far as the Internet," he quipped, "not interested."
But Burke Lister Vicki Graves said a workshop on broadband was a good idea. "I think these trainings help make some of the people less afraid of using the computer," she said. "Some people just have a resistance to it."
Davitian, aware of this attitude, eased into her subject. She began with a history lesson about the Rural Electrification Project, a government-funded New Deal program which finally brought electricity to many parts of Vermont in the 1930s. Her PowerPoint presentation included a quote from a boy whose home had recently been wired. "Mother," he said, "I didn't realize how dark our house was until we got electricity."
Davitian then explored the deployment of phone service in rural Vermont. Often, she said, farmers who were unwilling to wait for commercial carriers to extend lines formed co-ops, or bought kits from Montgomery Ward and installed the wires themselves. She showed a video clip in which one man described hearing how farmers in Colchester strung wires to their farmhouses.
It's a process that some in the crowd could probably remember. Davitian asked the officials to share memories of their earliest phones. One man born in Hartland, Vermont, in 1946 said he grew up with a battery-powered wooden wall phone connected to a 13-person party line. "We did not make any calls after 9 p.m.," he recalled, "because the switchboard was closed."
Davitian solicited similar stories about radio, TV and computer usage, in an effort to place broadband on the spectrum of technologies that can radically change -- and improve -- how we live.
But it seemed that many in the crowd were already prepared to hop on the broadband bandwagon. When Hoffman asked if they used the Internet at home or at work, most of them raised their hands. But while many reported having broadband at work, barely a dozen said they could get it at home. When Hoffman asked how many of them would prefer dial-up to broadband, the group collectively chuckled. No one raised a hand.
Hoffman encouraged the crowd to think of broadband as a utility, not a luxury. "Broadband now is where some of these technologies were 100 years ago," he said. "As you all know, you can't wait for the market to bring service to you. Now it's going to be up to local officials."
Hoffman then offered examples of how some Vermont towns have formed broadband committees, and applied for state grants to complete feasibility studies and attract vendors like Soundtivity Wireless to provide service. The Vermont Rural Broadband Project, a program of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, has already worked with 30 Vermont communities, such as Ripton, Greensboro and East Calais.
"Don't reinvent the wheel," Hoffman advised as he described the steps community leaders could take. "There's a lot of help available for people."
Before they left the stage, Hoffman and Davitian took a few questions. One woman rose and angrily asked why the state couldn't just force large companies to offer service to rural communities. "I don't think that's going to happen," Hoffman calmly answered. "The state can't force them to lose money."
Craftsbury Common Library Director Linda Wells voiced her frustration that her town had been rejected for a broadband grant. After the session ended, she confided that her town's broadband committee had been struggling to find the information Hoffman had presented. "I don't think the state has been really helpful as far as our town," she said.
Wells spoke with Hoffman for a few minutes, and said she'd be taking what she learned back to her committee.
As participants left, they filled out surveys. Many of them asked additional questions. Lynn Gregory, a professor in UVM's Community Development and Applied Economics Department, collected the questionnaires, which Hoffman and Davitian will use to fine-tune the Roadshow before their April 12 gig at the Town Officials conference at the Sheraton in South Burlington.
After a cursory glance at the papers, Gregory said most of the participants were engaged in the topic. "The general consensus," she said, "is that people wanted this presentation to be longer."