Fiber Projects Create Tension Among Providers

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(Host) For years, the quest for high speed internet has been a top priority in Vermont.

Dozens of providers have joined the race to put the state on an equal competitive footing with the rest of the high-tech world.  Then last year, the federal government added a game changer: Some $200 million in stimulus funds for internet infrastructure, to be implemented by a few successful applicants.

One of those applicants, SoverNet Communications, will soon break ground on an ambitious 700 mile fiber optic grid. So why isn’t everybody happy?

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Laura Sibelia directs the Mount Snow Region Chamber of Commerce. She’s had conversations with visitors who would love to work in Vermont, if only the internet capacity met their needs.

She mentions a second home owner in Dover who runs a computer service for resorts.

(Sibilia) "They could bring a couple more jobs here if they could bring the servers here. But they can’t cause they have to have redundant technology and you can’t get the bandwidth."

(Keese) That’s why Sibilia has worked hard to get the schools in her region to sign on to SoverNet’s FiberConnect project.

Fiber Connect is a public-private Partnership between SoverNet and the VTA, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, to bring a fiber optic "backbone" into even the most remote regions.

The network will link more than 300 "anchor" institutions in southern, central and northeastern Vermont, including all schools that choose to sign on.

The strategy has its critics, including Loredo Sola of E.C. Fiber.

(Sola) "When you’re building a broadband  infrastructure, you need to connect to all the homes and businesses in the community in order to stimulate community wide economic growth, rather than just a few businesses that are already served by existing carriers."

(Keese) E.C. Fiber, a 23-town consortium of central Vermont towns, has been struggling without subsidies to bring fiber to every dwelling.

Sola sees the SoverNet Project as competition.

The federally-backed plan is supposed to make it cheaper for other providers to extend service from the institutional anchors to individual businesses and homes.

SoverNet will own the infrastructure but is required to provide bandwidth at wholesale cost to providers who extend the service outward.

Loredo Sola is skeptical. He says he’s already lost one institutional contract to the SoverNet project. He says that’s forced E.C. Fiber to scrap its plans to serve smaller users in the area.

(Sola) "Because they’re taking away major institutional customers in our area. So that means that we no longer get the revenue from that major educational institution."

(Keese) VTA director Chris Campbell says the template for the SoverNet project was originated by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

(Campbell) "We had to apply to the program the way it was written, not the way we wished that it was written."

(Keese) Campbell also says the capacity the new network will bring to schools will transform education in Vermont, enabling distance learning, and other uses that haven’t yet been imagined.

But Sibilia, of the Mount Snow Chambers, says it’s been a hard sell getting some districts to sign on to the new, more costly service.

She says most schools already have some type of Internet and they don’t understand why they should pay more for something they think they already have.

Meanwhile, tensions continue as providers with and without subsidies race to bring the 21st century to every corner of Vermont.

For VPR news, I’m Susan Keese.

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