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July 11, 2010

Vermont Broadband Stimulated with $45.6 Million

The US Commerce Department recently announced that Vermont was awarded two broadband stimulus grants totaling $45,649,894 for "comprehensive community infrastructure". These awards should assure that Vermont achieves its e-state goal of going from broadband laggard to broadband leader. The projects will bring some benefits within a year; they'll be completed within three years. By that time, the ready availability of very highspeed broadband at reasonable prices should become a competitive plus for Vermont in attracting new residents and businesses and assuring that existing Vermonters and Vermont companies don't have to leave the state because of lack of cyber service.

These grants are for something called "middle mile" infrastructure in telecom jargon. Despite the jargon, this is infrastructure you care about and, arguably, what Vermont needs most. Here's why:

The modern Internet is based on the fantastic data-carrying capability of fiber optic cable. If we use the hackneyed metaphor that fiber is data's superhighway, then everything else is just an unpaved driveway. Driveways are fine for from our garages to the road; but we wouldn't want to go all the way to work or to the movies or shopping on a driveway. The places in Vermont which have poor or no Internet access available are generally places far away from the nearest fiber connection.

Cable connections to the Internet are reasonably fast for most users because cable companies run fiber to the neighborhoods they serve. The cablecos then use coaxial cable (doesn't matter what that is) to build driveways from the fiber to individual houses. Telephone companies usually have fiber in their central offices which are usually in the center of town; they use their copper wire as the "driveway" for DSL access. If you live too far from the central office, you live too far from the fiber and the copper driveway is too long and too much of an obstacle – no DSL for you. Wireless ISPs (WISPs) reach otherwise unreachable homes with radio; the radio connection makes a very good driveway over surprisingly long distances; but the WISPs often serve areas where there is not even fiber available at their base radio locations; so, although they are much better than dialup, they often can't provide the capacity we now need at affordable prices.

Building "middle mile" infrastructure simply means extending new fiber routes deep into Vermont towns and neighborhoods. The first customers of the new fiber funded by the grant program will be community anchor institutions like schools, hospitals, libraries, public safety locations, and government offices. Today, far too many of these institutions are on data dirt roads; within a couple of years, they'll be connected directly by fiber at a cost not significantly more than what they're paying for inferior access today. Most will have gigabyte access (a billion bits per second). This can be easily upgraded should they need more. Even with the speed our data-hunger grows, these institutions shouldn't have to worry about bandwidth for the next decade.

But, once the fiber is there in the neighborhood, businesses which need their own fiber connections will be able to have them built at low cost because fiber is already nearby. For example, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA), which received a grant for over $33 million as part of a more than $48 million project, plans to serve 450 community anchor institutions with 773 new miles of fiber; but they also believe the project will be able to serve as many as 2500 businesses along the route.

OK, you say, but what about me? I'm still stuck with a choice of dialup or satellite; what's all this middle mile stuff mean to me? Turns out it should be a very good thing. Vermont Telephone Company, Inc (VTEL), which was awarded over $12 million as the federal part of a $17.6 million project, says that it plans not only to offer gigabyte access to 207 new community anchor institutions with 348 miles of new fiber at year three prices averaging $918/month but also to sell wholesale Internet access at $10/megabit/month. You're not going to buy wholesale Internet access, yourself; but the local ISP or WISP who wants to provide you service will finally have a decent "middle mile" connection they can afford. Currently some WISPs are paying as much as $200/megabit or more for very small amounts of bandwidth. Having fiber in the neighborhood will make all the difference in the world to them – and to you.

The VTA project, Vermont Fiber Link, is a public-private partnership with Sovernet Fiber Corp., which will own and operate the network. More data about this project is available at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants/applications/summaries/4245.pdf.

The VTEL project is called VT Broadband Enhanced Learning Link (VT BELL). More information at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants/applications/summaries/7508.pdf.



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