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November 15, 2009

Vermont, Challenged and Stimulated

Now, when recovery from the worldwide recession is beginning, Vermont has an opportunity to emerge with a stronger economy, a cleaner environment, a broader tax base, and better jobs than we had before the downturn. We also face the enormous challenges of far too many Vermonters out of work, a state budget which was expanding at an unsustainable rate even before the recession, declining state revenues which will not return to bubble highs anytime soon, unfunded pension liabilities, the looming loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of budget bandaid from the Stimulus Bill (aka American Reinvestment and Recovery Act or ARRA), and a country whose national debt won't allow it to bail out the states (or anyone else) much longer. Oh yeah, our dominant telecom carrier is in bankruptcy too.

In my new job as Vermont's Chief Technology Officer (CTO), I'll be working on ways to use technology to seize the opportunities to overcome the challenges. Here's some of what we have going for us. Note that the opportunities go way beyond creating short term jobs; they build the infrastructure for a permanently stronger economy.

  1. Most Vermonters are tough, resilient, and hard working.
  2. ISO New England (the New England Power Grid) is financing a $53 million dollar buildout of high capacity data-carrying fiber by VELCO (Vermont's wholesale power transmission utility) as part of region-wide grid improvement. This fiber is not only the "state highway" path for the information which makes the smart grid smart, it also brings ultra highspeed Internet backbone affordably close to even the most rural parts of the state.
  3. The Department of Energy recently announced a nearly $69 million competitive grant to Vermont utilities. This money will be part of a $138 million project, which, at its completion at the end of 2012, will give Vermont the nation's first statewide smart grid, smart meters for almost everyone, a very competitive cost of electricity, and opportunities to use clean electricity to supplant petroleum as both a transportation and a heating fuel. Just as the VELCO network and other fiber already in place are the state highway system for data, the information needs of the smart grid project should provide substantial funding for "town highways" bringing high speed Internet access all the way to our homes and businesses.
  4. Vermont has already received one of the four first competitive broadband stimulus grants announced so far and may well receive funding for more projects when the rest of the grants are announced starting in December.
  5. Regardless of future stimulus funding, a newly-revitalized Vermont Telecommunications Authority has $40 million of revenue bonding which it should be able to deploy quickly to achieve our goals of universal cell coverage and high speed broadband availability. The smart grid projects listed above and any stimulus broadband grants make a tough job much easier (but not easy).
  6. There is $135 million of stimulus-funded low interest bonding available through the Vermont Economic Development Authority for credit-worthy businesses that want to expand in a state which is about to have both excellent telecommunications and relatively low cost energy – and is also a great place to live. The bonds must be issued by the end of 2010!
  7. There are $90 million of low interest stimulus bonds available to Vermont municipalities through the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank to make needed upgrades at lower cost. Again bonds must be issued by the end of 2010!
  8. A very high percentage of our state government workforce is due to retire in the next few years. This can either result in poor service and high costs if we don't prepare or substantially lower cost of government and better outcomes IF we use technology and the universal broadband adoption to improve the way state services are delivered in a way which was never possible before.


As CTO, it's my job to coordinate to assure that we actually do get the synergies between smart grid, broadband, and cellular coverage that are theoretically possible. It's also part of the job to assure that state government is using new technologies like smart grid for lower energy costs and broadband and the web to provide better state government at much reduced cost.

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