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Munson Hicks, Chair of the Vernon Fiber Optic Committee, speaks at a Jan. 18 meeting.

Town and Village

Group looks to a fiber-optic future

Committee says a town-owned, high-speed broadband network could bring in new businesses and residents

VERNON—Route 142, the two-lane highway that traverses Vernon from north to south, is, by most standards, not a busy road — especially since there are far fewer employees traveling to the shutdown Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

But some say building an information superhighway along this route could be the key to this town’s future.

For nearly a year, a group of residents has been investigating the possibility of creating a town-owned fiber optic network that could bring lightning-fast Internet speeds and much-needed economic growth.

They’ve come to two conclusions: Such a project is possible, based on successes elsewhere. But it will require commitment from many residents and businesses as well as funding—around $2 million—that has not yet been secured.

“The Fiber Optic Committee believes that this project will be a great benefit to the town of Vernon,” committee member Bronna Zlochiver told residents gathered for a meeting last week. “It is one of the few things that we can do for ourselves to move the town forward for a bright future.”

But Zlochiver added that “this is really up to you and the town as a whole. If we want this to happen, it will require a lot of work and commitment.”

Vernon is struggling to reinvent itself following the December 2014 shutdown of Vermont Yankee. The plant’s workforce already has been slashed from approximately 550 to about 300, and that number will be reduced by half in May.

There is a move toward retaining the town’s power-producing status — and restoring some of those lost jobs — by building a natural gas-fired plant somewhere near the Yankee site. Another public forum on that proposal is planned for Feb. 3.

The town’s Planning and Economic Development Commission has been leading research of the gas-plant proposal, but officials also have said they want to take a broader view of Vernon’s future. In that spirit, resident Munson Hicks approached the commission last year about the benefits of a fiber optic network.

“I couldn’t think of anything that would boost the town more quickly and more securely after the loss of VY than creating our own high-speed Internet,” Hicks said.

The five-member Fiber Optic Committee — a subcommittee of the planning commission — consists of Hicks, Zlochiver, Martin Langeveld, David Andrews, and Emily Vergobbe. On Jan. 19, the group held a community forum at Vernon Elementary School to provide an update and determine interest in doing further work.

Hicks told a crowd of about 25 people that a fiber optic system, which utilizes glass strands rather than copper wire to transmit information, offers download and upload speeds that far outpace the town’s currently available DSL and cable services.

One display from the committee’s presentation showed that downloading a two-hour, standard definition movie would take over an hour at DSL speeds of 3 megabits per second. The same operation would take just 12 seconds via a fiber optic connection operating at 1 gigabit per second, officials said.

For personal, residential purposes, faster data speeds mean easier use of video streaming, gaming, and uploading to cloud storage, for example. And as technology continues to evolve, “we’re going to be living in a different world” that places much greater demands on available bandwidth, Hicks said.

He also outlined medical and educational uses: One town in Kentucky, Hicks said, has achieved “extraordinary” results in its schools after installing 1-gigabit fiber.

With Yankee’s closure, what many want to hear about is the potential for new jobs in town.

“Really, I think we need to look at this as an economic development initiative for Vernon,” Langeveld said. “Businesses already need this kind of speed or very soon will need this kind of speed, so having that in town will really be a big plus in trying to get more businesses to locate here.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean large, brick-and-mortar businesses, Zlochiver said. She foresees an economy that’s “knowledge-based and innovative,” with entrepreneurs able to work from home or from small offices.

There are no guarantees of such economic benefits. But Hicks pointed to research showing that home buyers and business owners place a high priority on high-speed broadband, and he told the crowd that “there is the idea of, ‘Build it, and they will come.’”

The committee has been looking into the possibility of building a municipally owned fiber optic network, where the town would contract for creation of the network, then contract for its operation and maintenance.

Committee members pointed to several examples of publicly-owned fiber networks. Though Burlington Telecom has had well-publicized financial issues and is up for sale, the network continues to operate and has been cited as a prime driver behind potential growth in that area.

In Massachusetts, a “WiredWest” effort is under way to create a regional, $79 million fiber network in more than 30 towns. And a functioning, municipally owned network already exists in Leverett, Mass. “LeverettNet” provides 1-gigabit service via a system built by Millennium Communications Group.

Members of the Vernon committee have talked to Millennium and to Sovernet Communications, the Bellows Falls-based company that built a Vermont fiber optic network that reached hundreds of “community anchor institutions” including Vernon’s library. The Fiber Optic Committee also has contacted state and regional officials as well as legal representatives.

But many questions remain, including how much a fiber connection might cost for customers and how the town would pay for the project. Committee members are suggesting a mix of grants and a bond issue to finance the project, and they believe at least 25 percent of Vernon’s homes and businesses would have to sign up to make the project feasible.

“We need to consult people much more knowledgeable than we are, and we need to enlist the help of federal, state, and local (officials) to seek out grants and other sources of funding,” Zlochiver said.

The Jan. 19 crowd seemed interested in the concept, with some asking questions about the project’s timing and the technical aspects of fiber connections.

Officials say they’ll need more of that kind of sentiment if the project is to move forward. Vernon Planning Commission has not yet endorsed the proposal, and much more support is needed from the town’s businesses and residents.

“We need volunteers to canvass neighborhoods to explain what this is about and to gauge the interest of our neighbors,” Zlochiver said. “This is the just start of a long process.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #341 (Wednesday, January 27, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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