By JOHN S. McCRIGHT
RIPTON — Bill Biederman likes living in Ripton, but the mountains that surround his home often make communicating with the outside world difficult. He hasn’t owned a television for 25 years because the reception is so poor and he describes his use of the Internet over a slow, dial-up connection as “incredibly painful.” And then, of course, when the phone lines get knocked out by inclement weather even that is gone.
But all that changed on Dec. 6 when the Ripton Broadband Cooperative (RBC) began offering wireless, high-speed Internet access to the first 50 co-op members.
“My son came down to me and said, ‘Geez, Dad, I was just watching English soccer on the Internet, this is fantastic,’” Biederman said.
Advocates for providing more high-speed Internet access in the state say the experience in Ripton is a prime example of how the technology could be broadly distributed in order to provide not only more entertainment options for Vermonters but services that could boost education, business and the economy. At least one local company has plans to extend high-speed access to more Addison County residents in the next few months.
Biederman pointed out that his son used the high-speed access, also called broadband, at his home to complete a research project on volcanoes. Jeremy Grip, chief operations officer at Middlebury-based North Branch Networks (NBN), which is working with RBC, ticked off a number of services that can be provided over high-speed Internet connections: online banking, voice telephony over the Internet, downloading videos and online gaming.
“There is the efficient use of email and the ability to receive and forward large attachments much more quickly,” Grip said.
Biederman added that having a replacement for the telephone makes sense given Vermont’s sometimes punishing weather.
“You’re not tied to the phone company,” he said. “If you are off the grid or have some kind of way to generate power and everything goes down you still have communications.”
All these benefits come at no little expense in terms of both money and effort. Biederman, who is chair of the RBC board, said setting up service in Ripton took much longer than expected. The idea for bringing broadband to Ripton was conceived in 2003 and interested residents began meeting to discuss implementation that September. They found many technical, regulatory and legal hoops to jump through.
“We basically had to create our bylaws for our co-op from scratch because no one has done a co-op this small,” Biederman said.
What they ended up with is a system that looks like this: TelJet Longhaul LLC connects NBN to the Internet via fiber-optic cable fed underground to the NBN offices in Middlebury’s Battell Block, where it is converted into a wireless signal. From the Battell Block the signal is broadcast to the roof of McCardell Bicentennial Hall at Middlebury College, and then is redirected to a 110-foot wind tower in West Cornwall. From there, it is redirected to a second wind tower in Ripton and then down to customers in Ripton. For customers who live down in hollows or behind other obstacles, the signal will be bounced off additional access point transmitters.
“That’s the kind of thing you have to do in Vermont because every time you turn around you have something in the way,” Biederman said.
During the startup phase, NBN put in “innumerable hours” providing consulting and technical expertise to the project, Biederman said. At one point last fall the co-op had to organize volunteers to put up the signal tower in Ripton. The tower-raising turned out to be “very much a community event,” he added.
In addition, NBN received additional expertise and assistance from a long list of sources that ranged from the Vermont Small Business Development Center to Otter Creek Brewing founder Lawrence Miller and Bryan Alexander, director of research at the National Institute on Technology and Liberal Education. Grip said that “NBN was deeply appreciative of the cooperation of all the people involved in this co-location from a relay at Bicentennial Hall.”
The reason Ripton residents had to work so hard themselves to get broadband is simple.
“There isn’t enough money there to start a private business,” Biederman said.
The RBC, which Biederman said is aiming to sign up 70 members, received a $25,000 grant from the Vermont Broadband Council (VBC). It then and secured a loan of $12,500 from the Addison County Economic Development Corp and also secured a $40,000 line of credit from the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
RBC’s success in making high-speed access a reality in Ripton should be a motivator for other communities who want broadband, according to Jack Hoffman, executive director of the VBC.
“(Ripton is) so remote it shows that almost any community in Vermont can do this,” he said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, has been working in the Legislature to help find money and expertise to get broadband access to more Vermonters who live in difficult-to-serve areas like Ripton. For instance, in each of the last two years Legislators have put $100,000 in the capital bill to fund a grant program.
For the past few years an ad hoc committee of state representatives and senators interested in the health of rural communities have met weekly to discuss how they can further that goal. The group plans to continue meetings in the session that started this week.
“Having that group weigh in on issues is helpful in getting the attention of the leadership, Jewett said. “It means that it’s not just a few legislators.”
CO-OPS A GOOD MODEL
The smaller, independent phone companies are doing a good job providing broadband Internet access to their Vermont customers, according to Hoffman. But for smaller towns not served by these companies, which is most of Vermont, a co-op business model is a good way to get such services and maintain control over them, he added.
“It’s a good model in Vermont,” Hoffman said. “It is good for communities to have some control over the services they get. As all our telecommunications services migrate to a single wire — pretty soon your television, telephone, Internet are all going to be coming into your house on one wire — as a matter of public policy we ought to think about who owns that.”
But NBN also is ready to jump into that breach in parts of Addison County.
The company expects to roll out broadband service in Salisbury this month. Grip explained that it will be able to do this by bouncing its wireless Internet signal off the West Cornwall tower.
In the spring it plans to add service to most of the rest of Addison County and parts of neighboring counties. The signal for that service will come from microwave radio transmitters BNB will place on the tower atop Chipman Hill in Middlebury. The exact coverage area is available at www.nbnworks.net.
“Our primary market is those people who have no broadband option now,” Grip said. “We fully expect to be running a service as fast if not faster than current DSL and considerably faster on the upload side than cable offerings.”
COST OF SERVICE
NBN hopes to have 2,500 subscribers within two years. Customers will pay a $99 installation fee plus a monthly charge. Pricing for that service, which provide downloads at speeds up to 1,500 kbps and higher depending on the product the customer chooses, will be similar to that paid by RBC customers, Grip said.
Pricing for RBC services runs from about $35 to $55 per month for residential customers and $45 to $75 per month for small businesses.
VBC’s Hoffman hopes that these recent developments are only the first of many to come.
“What we should push for in Vermont is as much capacity a possible,” he said. “If were going to have all this content — especially television — we need a lot more capacity.”