Stimulus funding brings broadband to rural homes, schools


In some parts of rural America, the issue isn’t just making broadband available. It’s convincing holdouts that there’s a benefit to it.

A survey released Jan. 13 by the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association—a trade association for rural telecoms—found that the overall broadband subscriber “take rate” for its member companies is only 55 percent, up from 38 percent a year ago.

“It’s kind of one of those ‘If you build it, will they come?’ things,” said CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “It’s one thing when you put in phone service. You may only have five customers at first, but you knew people would sign up. Now, you put out the broadband … and you’re doing a proposition of ‘Do you get enough customers to make it worth your while?’”

In Vermont, the rugged landscape of the Green Mountains, combined with the spread-out locations of the state’s 620,000 people, has blocked or impeded the building of infrastructure for telephone, transportation, and electricity, among other things.

The last towns to get electricity were the hamlets of Granby and Victory, in 1963, following years of fund raising, including a “Holiday in the Hills” weekend in 1959 in which residents showed visitors how to get by using oil lamps and wood cookstoves.

Even now, utility crews have to use draught horses to haul poles and cables to places that trucks can’t go.

“It’s not as easy as some of the other big flat states in the Midwest, where you put the plow down and you just head on out, because they’re in sandy soil they can bury their cable in,” said Kurt Gruendling, vice president of marketing and business development for Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom.

“In Vermont, in particular, we say we’re ‘topographically challenged.’ We have a lot of nooks and crannies,” said Deborah Shannon, director of broadband outreach and coordination for the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

Former Gov. Jim Douglas and various providers had pledged to get broadband to all corners of Vermont by the end of 2010, but a combination of factors—including the market’s collapse in 2008—prevented that.

Enter the stimulus.

Vermont Telephone is getting $116 million in grants and loans to extend wireless broadband to anchor institutions and unserved homes and businesses in Vermont and parts of neighboring New York and New Hampshire.

The Vermont Telecommunications Authority, in conjunction with internet service provider Sovernet Communications, is using $33.4 million in stimulus funds to build a 773-mile fiber-optic backbone that will make up the so-called “middle mile” of service, allowing schools, state buildings, and community centers to hook up to the main trunk. The “last mile” is from there to the home.

“Without the stimulus, the private sector would not have been able to do this, and the state would not have been able to develop its plans to push higher-capacity fiber connections out into our most rural areas,” Shannon said.

Meanwhile, Valerie Houde waits.

“I know there are a lot of people out there, like us, who would greatly benefit from having broadband, and with the money the state got for expanding service, it seems something should change, finally, as long as the money goes where it’s supposed to and not into politicians’ and corporate executives’ pockets,” she said.< ?php do_action("erp-show-related-posts", array("title"=>“Related News”, “num_to_display”=>5)); ?>

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.