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Rural Vermont Reaches Out for Broadband

Local Matters


BURLINGTON - Jon Fick lives in Westford, but he may soon be a customer of Burlington Telecom, the Queen City's telecommunications company.

Fick's rural hometown has virtually no high-speed, broadband Internet access. On Town Meeting Day, residents voted to work with nearby Jericho and Underhill to investigate construction of a municipally owned fiber-optic network, which would bring broadband to the area and provide telephone and cable TV service. Voters in Jericho and Underhill approved similar measures.

"It was the only item that got applause at Town Meeting in Westford," says Fick, who serves on the town's High Speed Internet Research Committee.

The towns will seek private financing to run fiber-optic cables to houses and businesses. But, rather than build their own telecommunications hub, they'll contract with another entity - possibly Burlington Telecom - to administer the services.

Fick says it's not a done deal yet, but BT is the most likely provider. The municipally owned company began offering telephone, cable TV and Internet to Queen City residents last year. It currently serves more than 1100 subscribers, and is adding 40 new clients each week. Service isn't yet available in many parts of the city, but most neighborhoods are scheduled to be wired by the end of the year. BT director Tim Nulty claims the rollout will not be affected by potential subscribers in other towns.

Nulty says BT is not actively looking for customers beyond Burlington, but the utility is open to the partnerships. "We're not in imperialism mode," he says. "We respond to towns that come to us."

Several small towns have tired of waiting for Verizon and Comcast to offer broadband, and have approached BT. If they can find financing to lay the cables, says Nulty, BT can connect them to its infrastructure fairly easily, by building an "umbilical cord" that will plug into its hub. A small charge for the cable would appear as a separate fee on those subscribers' monthly bills.

"It's basically the same thing as adding another neighborhood in Burlington," Nulty says, "except the neighborhood is 12 miles away."

Nulty says BT's infrastructure has the capacity to serve 100,000 customers; there are only about 20,000 households in Burlington. More customers will bring in more money for the city, Nulty points out. "It's a win for everybody," he says.

More money is definitely a good thing - in a report this week to the Burlington City Council, Nulty acknowledged that BT is behind on its projected revenues. He blames Adelphia, which contested BT's Certificate of Public Good, and says BT wasn't able to wire parts of the New North End because Verizon, Adelphia and the Burlington Electric Department were slow to reconfigure the utility poles.

The resulting 14-month delay cost BT nearly $4 million. But, Nulty says, demand for BT's services is higher than expected, which should put it in the black by January 2009, about three months behind schedule.

Though there are no geographic boundaries on BT's potential service area, Nulty says the company won't expand into areas that are already covered by local telephone companies, such as Waitsfield Telecom. And BT's not likely to serve other towns where broadband is already available.

"We get calls from Belvidere and Newport," he says. "Not Williston."