Stimulus in Action, Vermont Style

I’ve been interested in Vermont’s ongoing broadband woes for a while now. I lived there until I was 21, and have seen firsthand how disconnected the state can be from the rest of the country. It’s not only a cultural thing (though Vermonters’ continued obsession with jam-bands from the ’90s is troubling), but a communications thing: outside of the Burlington area, relatively few people have consistent broadband access.

Without a good internet connection, it’s nearly impossible to run a business that involves people from beyond your own county, and kids growing up in rural Vermont will be even more culturally cut off than they already are.

This is, in part, thanks to a situation in which privately owned telecoms get to make the decisions about who gets what access, and how fast that access will be. From the market’s point of view, it’s simply too expensive to build out fiber-optic cable to rural Vermont (which is, um, most of Vermont). The Northeast Kingdom, an area populated by fewer people than my small neighborhood in Brooklyn, is being hit particularly hard by this lack of access.

Burlington — which is basically a socialist mini-state — has had its own municipal telecom company for a couple of years, which arrived long after the city-owned electrical plant was introduced. But all towns and counties don’t have the economic or political resources to launch municipal utilities like these.

So what to do?

Amazingly, the Wall Street Journal discovered that real people live in Vermont, and that they have problems that should interest the rest of us.

Tim Nulty, a fiscally conservative economist, wants to tap into federal funds to build out a fiber-optic network that would reach under-served parts of the state.

Mr. Nulty’s plan is to string 1,400 miles of fiber-optic lines across telephone poles and into people’s homes to provide a combo of ultra high-speed Web access, phone and cable TV service. The project is to be financed through a capital lease, with the towns raising money from investors to build the network, then leasing it back from them over 23 years. It is as “shovel-ready” as they come, Mr. Nulty says, and will create hundreds of construction and customer service jobs.

The stimulus in action, connecting Vermont to the 21st century. I like it.

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